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Food safety: 'Made in China' attracts the long arm of the FDA

With only two inspectors in China, the FDA has little food-safety enforcement power but definite influence on food made in China for import to the US.

By Staff Writer / October 23, 2010

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg (c.) visited the Shanghai Institute for Food and Drug Control in August 2010. With only two inspectors in China, the FDA has little food-safety enforcement power but definite influence on food made in China for import to the US.

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Huanglu, China

Food producers are rarely thrilled to hear that US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors have scheduled them for a visit. But Zhang Botao says that after a three-year wait there is nothing he would rather hear.

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Mr. Zhang runs a catfish processing plant here in southeastern China, where many peasants have diversified away from traditional rice paddies and cotton fields to dig fishponds. But Zhang and his fish farming partners have gotten caught up in a food-safety scandal that has nearly ruined their business. And only the FDA can save them.

In a cool, brightly lit, white-tiled room smelling as much of disinfectant as of fish, platoons of young women covered head to toe in protective clothing wield knives with frightening speed and precision, reducing flat-headed catfish to plump fillets in a matter of seconds.

In Pictures: The foreign and domestic food chain

But most of the stainless steel workstations are empty. So many fish farmers have gone out of business since the FDA slapped restrictions on Chinese catfish exports three years ago that Sun Gem Foodstuffs, Zhang's company, finds it hard to obtain enough product, says deputy manager Sun Shucai.

One of the Chinese food-safety scandals in 2007 involved the discovery of potentially carcinogenic residues of colorants and antibiotics in catfish headed for the US market. The FDA reduced the acceptable levels of the banned chemicals from five parts per billion to one part per billion, and made previously random inspections mandatory for every batch of Chinese catfish coming off a boat in American ports.

Those inspections had to be paid for. So did the extra time the fish spent in cold storage (as much as six months) while awaiting inspection. Sun Gem had to pay those costs, which came to about 10 percent of the value of each shipment – about equal to the company's profit margin.

Worse, the scandal did terrible things to the reputation of the Chinese catfish industry. Sun Gem's exports to the United States had been growing by leaps and bounds until 2007. Since then they have slumped. Zhang reckons he has lost $8 million due to lost business and the price of testing in China and at US ports.

That's not fair, he argues: "We have shipped nearly 2,000 tons of catfish to the United States since 2003 and not a single shipment has ever had a problem" with the FDA. All his fish, he adds, are descended from fry he bought from Mississippi State University's catfish research unit. He doesn't treat them with banned chemicals, he gives them feed that meets US safety standards, and he tests pond water regularly.

But only an FDA visit could confirm all that to the satisfaction of the US food-safety authorities. Three catfish processors in the neighboring province of Hubei have been fortunate, Zhang says enviously; the FDA gave them a clean bill of health that makes it significantly cheaper and less complicated for the firms to export catfish to America – no special port inspections, no long delays in customs, and no waits for payment.

But there are only two FDA food inspectors working in China. Zhang has heard that one may inspect his operation before the end of the year.

Most remarkably, perhaps, Zhang is grateful to the FDA for decimating his industry; only 12 Chinese catfish processors remain in business, he says, down from 50 three years ago.

"At first I thought it was bad," he says. "We thought the US was too strict."

But now, he adds, Chinese rules on acceptable chemical residues in fish are just as strict as American rules, though not always as carefully implemented. "That has helped the Chinese food industry standardize and regulate itself," Zhang argues. "Stricter US regulations have helped protect Chinese consumers as well."

In Pictures: The foreign and domestic food chain

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