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.
â€œMany companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,â€ said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. â€œI donâ€™t know if thereâ€™s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says â€˜donâ€™t do it,â€™ so everyoneâ€™s doing it. The laws in China are like that, arenâ€™t they? If thereâ€™s no accident, there wonâ€™t be any regulation.â€…
…The pet food case is also putting Chinaâ€™s agricultural exports under greater scrutiny because the country has had a terrible food safety record.
In recent years, for instance, Chinaâ€™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 â€” ‘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.
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.
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.