It’s not just about pet food

The New York Times has a story up about the pet food contamination scandal that claims adulteration with melamine is an open secret in China, and that it’s been in the human food chain for a long time:

Workers at the Shandong Mingshui Great Chemical Company say they commonly add the chemical melamine in the process of making animal feed. Melamine appears as protein but has no nutritional value.

For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with the substance, called melamine, a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.

“Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,” said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. “I don’t know if there’s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says ‘don’t do it,’ so everyone’s doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren’t they? If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation.”…

…The pet food case is also putting China’s agricultural exports under greater scrutiny because the country has had a terrible food safety record.

In recent years, for instance, China’s food safety scandals have involved everything from fake baby milk formulas and soy sauce made from human hair to instances where cuttlefish were soaked in calligraphy ink to improve their color and eels were fed contraceptive pills to make them grow long and slim.

For their part, Chinese officials dispute any suggestion that melamine from the country could have killed pets. But regulators here on Friday banned the use of melamine in vegetable proteins made for export or for use in domestic food supplies.

Yet what is clear from visiting this region of northeast China is that for years melamine has been quietly mixed into Chinese animal feed and then sold to unsuspecting farmers as protein-rich pig, poultry and fish feed.

“If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation…”

It’s no surprise to anyone who’s followed contemporary China closely that unscrupulous business owners cut corners to lower costs and increase profits. But I place the blame on our own cutthroat, corporatist system as well. Where was the FDA? What happened to food safety?

Remember how Ronald Reagan helped to demonize the government? What was that cute joke of his, “the nine scariest words in the English language — ‘I’m with the government, and I’m here to help.” So we’ve cut services, privatized, outsourced, basically allowed the agencies that are supposed to be working for our benefit to be gutted and co-opted, to the point where the state of California had to sue the Environmental Protection Agency in order to regulate tail-pipe emissions…and poisoned pets, contaminates in the human food chain, are just one result.

There’s something deeply wrong with the current logic of globalization, when the United States, one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses, is importing substandard food products from China, simply because they are “cheaper.”

“Cheaper”? What are the real costs here? To our health. To our environment. The amount of fossil fuels burned to transport this stuff alone should give us pause.

It’s past time to start factoring in the social and environmental costs of doing business when we consider the definition of profitability.

H/T to SusanHu of No Quarter and Itchmo

UPDATE The FDA announced that it will limit the import of certain Chinese food products until they can be proven safe, to include “wheat gluten, rice gluten, rice protein, rice protein concentrate, corn gluten, corn gluten meal, corn by-products, soy protein, soy gluten, mung-bean protein and amino acids” – ingredients found in everything “from noodles to breakfast bars.” They’ve also confirmed that pet deaths are in the thousands, not the few dozen they’ve insisted on, against all evidence.

Stay tuned.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 70 Comments

Another problem is fake drugs. Either they don’t work or they are poisonous themseves. Chinese companies are very competetive in this buisness field, mostly poisoning their compatriots, but sometimes also others:
“A trail of poisoned medicine leads back to China”(

May 6, 2007 @ 6:27 pm | Comment

A related story in today’s NYT:

From China to Panama: A Trail of Poisoned Medicine

Counterfeiters are substituting common medicinal sweetener glycerin with a cheaper, poisonous substance. Panama is the most recent victim with a reported 365 human deaths.

This is outrageous and scary.

May 6, 2007 @ 8:17 pm | Comment

A related story in today’s NYT:

From China to Panama: A Trail of Poisoned Medicine

Chinese counterfeiters are substituting common medicinal sweetener glycerin with a cheaper, poisonous substance. Panama is the most recent victim with a reported 365 human deaths.

This is outrageous and scary.

May 6, 2007 @ 8:18 pm | Comment

I was buying a large bag of Winalot in Jenny Lou’s and was standing in the queue at the till. A woman behind me asked if I had a dog. On impulse, I told her that no, I was starting The Winalot Diet again, although I probably shouldn’t because I’d ended up in the hospital last time, but that I’d lost 50 pounds before I awakened in an intensive care ward with tubes coming out of most of my orifices and IVs in both arms. I told her that it was essentially a perfect diet and the way that it works is to load your trouser pockets with Winalot nuggets and simply eat one or two every time you feel hungry & that the food is nutritionally complete so I was going to try it again.

I have to mention here that practically everyone in the queue was by now enthralled with my story, particularly a guy who was behind her. Horrified, she asked if I’d ended up in the hospital in that condition because I had been poisoned. I told her no, it was because I’d been sitting in the road licking my balls and a car hit me.

May 6, 2007 @ 9:30 pm | Comment

Now, a new story scarier than the pet food one:
Over 350 Panamanians are dead from poisoned
cough syrup. Deadly glycol syrup was shipped from China and fraudulently labelled as glycerin (a safe additive syrup), along with faked test results “confirming” it was 99.5% pure glycerin!

A Chinese middleman involved has been arrested, but the factories involved are still cranking out glycol and advertising online it as glycerin!

Interestingly, it was a glycol tainted
drugs scandal in the U.S. 70 years (100 were killed) ago that led to formation of the F.D.A.,
and product inspections and certifications.

Personally, I’ve stopped buying any foodstuffs manufactured in China because I don’t trust the ingredients. But a problem is many North American made foodstuffs have ingredients imported from China, but there’s no requirement the country of origin be listed on labels. So you never really know what you’re getting.

Buying prepared food or drugs off store shelves is turning into a game of Russian roulette.

The only safe way to consume anymore is to find an unpolluted piece of land somewhere and
consume only what you can grow and prepare yourself from scratch!

May 7, 2007 @ 8:18 am | Comment

Bob, I need to look this up but a quick note – there’s a new bill in Congress called COOL that requires Country Of Origin Labeling. Contact your Congress-critters. Not sure if it’s House or Senate.

May 7, 2007 @ 9:24 am | Comment

“Personally, I’ve stopped buying any foodstuffs manufactured in China because I don’t trust the ingredients. But a problem is many North American made foodstuffs have ingredients imported from China,”

You pretty much have to buy from a whole foods, vitamin cottage or other such local organic market, or your farmer’s market because even basic components of any processed food, sweetener or preservative are mass produced in China.

The CDC and FDA are investigating a correlation between an increase in allergies in the US and contaminated foodstuffs.

So this is the result of China’s rise?

May 7, 2007 @ 11:15 am | Comment

Lisa et al

Yes I am absolutely aghasted by the lengths or rather the short cuts that some Chinese companies are willing to resort to to make a quick buck. Remember the empty infant formula case. As I have suggested these perpretrators should be jailed and made to consume the milk they have produced only and die a slow and horrible dead.
But as for raw material use by US or other companies , the importer of those raw materials to be incorporated to the finished products i.e. the manufacturers bears some responsibility. Poisons and integrity in and of raw materials can be tested easily and it is the onus of the manufacturers to make sure the raw materials they use is up to standards by using of good surveyors and good quality controls.

I am sure those who import Chinese origin raw materials are also doing so because of the low cost hence are also it in for the buck. From my experience when you are buying something that is too low in cost compared with the prevailing market it comes with it a hidden cost. THe glycol and glycerin issue may be one of them

So we should also punish the importers/manufacturers that buy this stuff as they are not devoid of any blame

May 7, 2007 @ 3:16 pm | Comment

Flabbergasted, what you said is basically the point of my post. Ultimately the major portion of the responsibility lies on the people who manufacture the contaminated/counterfeit goods. But an economic system that has made it desirable for the US to import “cheap” goods without factoring in very real costs, in a country where the ruling party has slashed enforcement budgets and regulatory agencies, bears responsibility as well. Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware.

Still, I can’t say that both sides are equally to blame here. In any kind of business relationship, there has to be trust, and right now it seems that too many business in China aren’t trustworthy. The Chinese government absolutely has to step up to the plate here and vigorously enforce its own standards. Ultimately Chinese people are hurt by these practices far more than foreigners – it’s another instance where the government needs to serve the people, as it is supposed to do.

May 7, 2007 @ 4:02 pm | Comment

“Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware.”

Surely this is never more salient than when dealing with Chinese companies, and, on a larger scale, the Chinese government.

There is, in my opinion, a clear cultural difference in the way business is conducted in China that goes beyond ‘profit by any means,’ although money is certainly the bottom-line motivating factor.

To gain advantage by deception is generally considered morally irresponsible in the west. To a far greater extent, the same behaviour is considered acceptable business practice in China.

“It’s not just about pet food”

Absolutely right. The dog’s dinner is the tip of a very large iceberg.

May 7, 2007 @ 11:32 pm | Comment

Well worth a read on the science behind the melamine scare:

“How Two Innocuous Compounds Combined to Kill Pets”

May 8, 2007 @ 12:25 am | Comment

Stuart, I don’t think it’s by any means universal – I do think there are plenty of honest businesses – but obviously there is a systemic problem here. I think a lot of the time it’s ignorance – the story of the poisoned medicine is illustrative of this – the guy wasn’t some educated scientist, he was a former tailor who tested his product by tasting it (!). Not that he wasn’t aware on some level that he was committing a fraud, but the attitude seemed to have been, as with the melamine, oh well, what harm will it do?

The story about the honey producer provides more examples of this kind of thinking, both of an honest businessman who cares about quality and others who provide inferior or even dangerous products, mostly due to ignorance.

Really, this is a case where the Central Government needs to put this on a par with some of their other massive infrastructure projects and build the sort of food safety and regulatory system that can get this under control.

It’s also a prime example of what happens when you don’t have government involvement in business. There are good reasons for regulations and regulatory agencies, regardless of libertarians’ dreams of unfettered capitalism.

We need our own enforcement agencies refunded and beefed up here in the US as well. We had a system that worked pretty well, until Grover Norquist’s acolytes began their project of drowning the government in a metaphoric bathtub (I’m paraphrasing a famous Norquist quote).

May 8, 2007 @ 1:28 am | Comment

Well I hope that bill that otherlisa mentions gets passed, the one that would require countries of origin of all ingredients to be listed on labels.

I live in Canada and I’m not aware such a bill is in the works here yet. Certainly the issues surrounding the pet food scandal have been receiving lots of airing in the media. Pet food maker Menu Foods that was the primary co. involved is based in Toronto. I must write my member of Parliament.

I agree with the idea mentioned of buying from reputable organic foods suppliers.
These imported ingredients scandals provide yet another reason for trying to eat locally (e.g. the “100 mile diet”). The main benefit stated up till now is that eating locally lowers transportation costs, energy use and CO2 emissions.

I feel pessimistic about the Chinese gov’t being able to get control of these problems any time soon. A major obstacle is that a culture of corruption is apparently so rampant, that businessmen wanting to skirt regs. typically just need to bribe local gov’t officials, who are frequently all too eager to accept bribes.

The corruption cases that do get prosecuted in China are few, no doubt drops in the bucket. Chances of prosecution remain slim, leaving little disincentive to commit such frauds.

Now I’m concerned about the vitamins and supplements I take, ’cause most of them originate from Chinese factories, so I’ve read.

May 8, 2007 @ 2:14 am | Comment

“A major obstacle is that a culture of corruption is apparently so rampant, that businessmen wanting to skirt regs. typically just need to bribe local gov’t officials, who are frequently all too eager to accept bribes.”

It isn’t just corruption. The police and inspectors are paid such pathetic salaries that bribes are almost a necessity to keep bellies full and pay for the one child’s tuition at the best affordable school.
The spirit of public service is crushed by economic necessity, yet Beijing would rather build the “crush Taiwan and humiliate Japan/US” force than up salaries. Salary raises in the US have proven to be a very effective way to limit corruption.

For those inspectors and police officers who have a very strong spirit of public service, factory bosses and local/regional party members resort to threats and violence to protect their evil ways.

May 8, 2007 @ 4:11 am | Comment

By the way, can I remind everyone to either make HTML links or use to make shorter links? You’ll note that the page width here gets stretched to accommodate the length of the link. This isn’t too bad so I’m not going to go in and edit it.


May 8, 2007 @ 4:20 am | Comment


Chinese Military 12 miles inside Indian terrirory in Arunachal Pradesh?

Arunachal CM denies but facts point otherwise
Media Release
May 7, 2007

The Arunachal Pradesh government on Monday denied reports of any Chinese incursion into the frontier north-eastern state.

“There is absolutely no truth in the reports of any Chinese intrusion. The allegations were unfounded,” Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu said.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Lok Sabha MP from Arunachal Pradesh, Khiren Rijiju, had been quoted as saying that China had moved 20 km inside Arunachal Pradesh.

“There has been a Chinese incursion in our country particularly in Arunachal Pradesh. I have written to the government of India and raised the issue in parliament. The government of India is not accepting the incursion openly. But defence personnel do acknowledge that this is happening and the Chinese are occupying our land,” Rijiju was quoted as saying by the media on Monday.

May 8, 2007 @ 5:21 am | Comment

It really funny how people complaint when Chinese food products are tinted while still living on the illusion that somehow american products are any better.

Do we even pay attention to the crap load of chemical in our food now? Remeber the Sudan 1 dyes and the nitrates we’ve been injecting our meat products or the growth hormones in our food and what do people think of ingesting antibiotics along with the beef?

The chinese pet feed troubles are only a sting of many that existis in our system. Its the system that need to be delt with, both in the US and China.

It’s never about China bad and America good but rally the question of stringent business practice and the ineffectiveness of the government to regulate that process.

May 8, 2007 @ 6:06 am | Comment

Maomao, I have made that point repeatedly in both the post and my comments. However, it’s clear that China has a longer way to go in constructing a regulatory system that protects its people, and no amount of bringing out the US system’s deficiencies (as I have) can disguise that fact.

May 8, 2007 @ 6:08 am | Comment

“So this is the result of China’s rise?”

No stupid, it’s a sad effect of CCP. Yes, we all know that throughout history food quality goes DOWN as the nation industrializes!

Even you aren’t that retarded. Hopefully international concern will whip them into shape faster.

May 8, 2007 @ 10:30 am | Comment


I wouldn’t say food quality was all that great in the pre-industrial period as simple pathogen contamination was frequent and the water quality differed greatly from place to place. Food science knowledge back then was non-existent, so parasitic infections were common, as they are in developing countries today.

International concern will be tempered by MNC outsourcing focus on profit.

May 8, 2007 @ 11:12 am | Comment

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