Sunday, October 26, 2008

The China Syndrome: The Way Forward

Two weeks ago, I posted "The China Syndrome: One Month Later" – a recap of the internal and international reverberations that resulted from China's melamine adulteration imbroglio. I wrote that article in the spirit of a philosophy espoused by my 90+ year old cousin, who believes that "you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've come from." 

Now that we know where we've come from – at least as far as melamine is concerned – where should we, and China, be going? More specifically, how does China regain the trust of the international trading community?

The government of China already has taken several steps down the long road to recovering its international markets; including,
  • withdrawing from retail sale all milk and infant formula powder produced prior to September 14th, and testing samples for melamine contamination,
  • extensive melamine testing of infant formula and and dairy-containing foods manufactured after September 14th,
  • arresting numerous suspected perpetrators of the melamine adulteration,
  • acknowledging government responsibility for failing to supervise the dairy industry adequately, and
  • introducing stricter food safety laws.

If China's words and deeds are sincere, these are decent first steps in crisis management. But the government must still find a way to address the long standing issues that triggered and exacerbated the melamine fraud:
  • pressure on dairy companies to not "blow the whistle" before or during the Beijing Olympic Games, so as to avoid loss of face,
  • a mindset that allowed – and to some extent, encouraged – the adulteration, and
  • lack of press and internet freedom, which enabled both industry and government to delay the news of the problem from leaking to Chinese and international consumers.

Although the initial melamine adulteration story revolved around milk, infant formula, and dairy-containing foods, it's become increasingly clear that the problem has spread well beyond the dairy sector. With international food safety regulators hot on the contamination trail, we've learned that melamine can be found in non-dairy items, too: shell eggs, egg powderanimal feed, ammonium bicarbonate (a chemical leavening agent), and frozen fried chicken.

Melamine is an industrial chemical – used, for example, in the manufacture of plastics. It is also a breakdown product of cyromazine, an insecticide. Unless farmers around the world stop using cyromazine, we can expect trace amounts of melamine to migrate into food. Though unfortunate, this is unavoidable. But we must not tolerate deliberate, or even accidental, addition of melamine directly to a food or an animal feed.

International agencies and national food safety agencies around the world are attempting to differentiate between unavoidable and avoidable melamine contamination of food by establishing maximum levels for this contaminant – typically, 1 ppm for infant formula or foods meant for children up to 3 years of age, and 2.5 ppm for other food items. These are acknowledged to be provisional limits based on current toxicology data. The World Health Organization will convene an emergency meeting on December 1st to review existing knowledge of melamine toxicity.

China has "signed on" to the interim melamine tolerance levels of 1ppm and 2.5ppm, and has used those limits in its intensive screening of existing stocks of fluid milk, milk powder, infant formula and dairy-containing products. More importantly, China's Premier Wen Jiabao seems to have learned the need for a "farm to fork" regulatory system. 

Yesterday, in an address to the 7th Asia-Europe Meeting, held in Beijing, Premier Wen said, "Food involves a full process from the farmland to the table. It involves many links and many processes. In every link and every process, we need to put in place effective and powerful regulatory measures."

"The Chinese government," the Premier added, "attaches great importance to food safety because it is not only in the interest of the Chinese but also people in the world." 

"In the future," he said, "our food safety criteria will not only meet the international standard but that of the importer of our products."

And the most significant promise of all – one that, if kept, shows that China knows where it's going:
"We will gain the trust of the Chinese and people in the world via our behaviors and quality of our products."

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