House Investigators: The Chinese Government Can't Protect Its Own Citizens, Let Alone Ours

Investigators from the House Energy and Commerce Committee spent two weeks snooping around China and probably haven’t eaten since. Their investigation revealed a tattered regulatory framework, unable to protect Chinese citizens, let alone foreigners. Among the disturbing facts uncovered:

  • China’s food system is fueled by hundreds of millions of private farms, “many no larger than a basketball court.” These small private farms are often their proprietor’s sole source of income; productivity is valued over safety.
  • China’s General Administration of Quality, Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ) is responsible for export quality control, but most supervision is left to local officials. Of course, “some voiced the opinion that some corruption was evident at the local level.”
  • “If the Chinese system worked as described, it would be a closed and therefore safe system. Committee staff, however, did not find an American or other multinational executive operating in China who believes that China has a competent, independent inspector stationed at each of the 3,700 plants that, according to Chinese officials, are fully HACCP-controlled. Committee staff also was unable to find anyone who believed that every single lot was sampled. It is further believed that the export certificates are subject to counterfeiting.”

And this is the good news. The inspectors originally wanted to visit the two plants responsible for the melamine wheat gluten contamination. In response, the Chinese delayed the investigators’ visas. By the time the investigators arrived on site, one plant had been bulldozed. The other was chained-off, its records held by the local police, and thus, confidential.

The team looked to Hong Kong and Japan for regulatory inspiration. In Hong Kong, the government extensively tests food samples and sends inspectors to foreign plants that export high-risk goods. In Japan, 15% of food imports are inspected, but those imports are only accepted from a small number of plants that are inspected annually by the Japanese. The downside to both models is cost, both to the government and to consumers, who pay a premium for quality imported goods.

The investigators believe that an inspection regime backed by adequate resources can improve the safety of our own food supply chain:

The United States, however, needs to sample enough so that detection becomes a deterrent. This will require some multiplying of our current efforts. It will also necessitate significantly more laboratory capacity for FDA.

The Administration has adamantly declared that it is impossible to inspect our way to safety, and wants to instead put faith in robots and science. The report sets up a confrontation between the Administration’s food safety working group and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The battle lines will become clearer on Thursday when the Committee holds the first in a series of hearings to further discuss the investigator’s conclusions.

Food from China: Can We Import Safely? (pdf) [House Energy and Commerce Committee]
(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)