NYT: Poisoned toothpaste comes from China

Yikes. What next?

Diethylene glycol, a poisonous ingredient in some antifreeze, has been found in 6,000 tubes of toothpaste in Panama, and customs officials there said yesterday that the product appeared to have originated in China.

‘Our preliminary information is that it came from China, but we don’t know that with certainty yet,’ said Daniel Delgado Diamante, Panama’s director of customs. ‘We are still checking all the possible imports to see if there could be other shipments.’

Some of the toothpaste, which arrived several months ago in the free trade zone next to the Panama Canal, was re-exported to the Dominican Republic in seven shipments, customs officials said. A newspaper in Australia reported yesterday that one brand of the toothpaste had been found on supermarket shelves there and had been recalled.

Bad timing, so close to the pet food scandal. This is about to get serious, according to my well-informed sources. One reader, in response to the earlier threads on the poisoned pet food, just sent me an email, before I saw this new story:

This story is escalating and so is opposition to food additives from China. Crackpot Chronicles is following the story in the media. Reports cite examples like:

-Many consumers have…told pet food makers that they want goods that are free of any ingredients from China, according to the Pet Food Institute. (NYT)

-As the recall of tainted pet food mushroomed into an international scandal, two of the largest U.S. food manufacturers [Mission Foods Corp. and Tyson Foods Inc] put out a blanket order to their American suppliers: No more ingredients from China. (L.A. Times)-
The stories inevitably go on to say that such bans are next to impossible, because imported additives are ubiquitous and corporate food interests are heavily invested in their use, however:

* The “Green” movement, currently ultra-chic, encourages a “buy local” policy.
* Consumers themselves are objecting–a groundswell difficult to dodge.
* The fallout and backlash are aggregating

Wu Yi, Vice Premier of China is coming to Washington next week for trade discussions. Let’s hope she gets an earful about this.

But even if government posits an objection and promises to investigate the matter are given, this is unlikely to yield any timely remedy given the historical pace of regulatory reforms. Temporary sanctions might be the best approach, but considering the capital investment imported third-world food additives represent, that will probably be sidestepped.
Continuing informed objection by consumers, blogs and non-aligned public agencies will probably provide the legislative tipping point. The PR tipping point, I believe has been reached.

This is truly an outrage, but it is bipartisan. I doubt US corporate food interests knowingly import adulterated product, but they can be expected to drag their feet regulating it.
Let’s keep the pressure on this issue.

Read her entire post, which now seems almost preternaturally prescient.


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: 74 Comments

Only subscribers can access the full article. I will cut and paste it here so that everyone can read.

Who’s Monitoring Chinese Food Exports?

Nicholas Zamiska
The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2007

HONG KONG — Tainted foods from China are becoming a growing problem as the country plays a greater part in the global food chain. Chemical use is high, regulations are lax, and while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the authority to check imports for contaminants that are in violation of U.S. law, it is able to physically inspect only a small fraction of them.

Late last month, the FDA said it had traced the culprit in the deaths of more than a dozen cats and dogs in the U.S. to contaminated wheat gluten produced thousands of miles away in Jiangsu province, China. The wheat gluten ended up in pet foods sold in stores across America run by Kroger Co., Safeway Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and others. It is far from clear how many pets have been affected, but the number could rise. The FDA says it has received more than 10,000 complaints.

The Chinese wheat gluten was contaminated by an industrial chemical called melamine, which is used to make plastics, glue and fire retardants but is also used as a fertilizer in Asia, according to the FDA. It may have led to kidney failure in the animals, although the FDA says it isn’t yet certain how exactly the pets died. The Chinese company, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., has denied shipping wheat gluten to the U.S.

Contaminated foods from China have shown up overseas before. In 2002, frozen spinach shipped to Japan was found to have high levels of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Late last year, Hong Kong health officials halted imports of turbot from mainland China that contained a banned substance called malachite green, an antifungal agent that may cause cancer.

Over the years, foreign governments have also found and rejected Chinese exports of honey containing the antibiotic chloramphenicol, crushed peppers with pesticides and seafood contaminated with veterinary drugs, to name only a few examples, according to Helen Jensen, professor of economics who works on food safety issues and international trade at Iowa State University. The pet-food case, she says, shows how, as the food system has become global in sourcing, “we’re vulnerable to what goes on throughout the world.”

China’s contamination problems stem in large part from its loose regulations and highly fragmented food production. Hundreds of millions of small farmers grow its food, and they rely heavily on chemicals to coax production out of intensively cultivated soils and to fight pests.

The result: “China has one of the world’s highest rates of chemical fertilizer use per hectare, and Chinese farmers use many highly toxic pesticides, including some that are banned in the United States,” according to a report published last November by the economic-research service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

More than a dozen government agencies are responsible for ensuring the safety of China’s food supply, and coordination and communication among them is a often a problem, notes Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization’s chief representative in China. “Despite many efforts, food regulations and standards have been developed in an ad hoc way without the benefit of a basic food law,” he adds.

The FDA has the power to stop shipments at the border and collect samples and test for certain contaminants that may be in violation of U.S. regulations. Last month, it refused 215 shipments from mainland China for various reasons. A shipment of dried red dates from Chongqing was considered filthy, frozen swordfish from Shandong contained a poisonous substance and ginseng from Changsha had unsafe pesticides.

But the food shipments that get tested are the exception, not the rule. “The volume of food imports from overseas is approaching 10 million per year, and the number that FDA inspectors physically examine is in the single digit thousands — making it virtually certain that any given food shipment will enter the United States with no FDA inspection,” William Hubbard, a retired associate commissioner of the FDA, said in Senate testimony in July 2006. “I could provide many more similar statistics, all of which paint a picture of an FDA regulatory structure that is under-resourced, understaffed and essentially incapable of meeting” many of its responsibilities on ensuring food safety.

In many cases, the burden of ensuring that food shipped out of China is safe falls on the foreign buyers, who negotiate with Chinese producers over what quality standards the food must meet.

A spate of poisoning cases in China has forced the government to publicly address the problem at home, even though it is unclear how much progress has been made towards improving safety. One of the most high-profile incidents occurred in 2004, when more than a dozen infants died after their mothers unknowingly fed them fake milk powder that had little or no nutritional value. Chinese television stations broadcast images of sick and dead babies that were fed the counterfeit formula.

Last November, Chinese authorities found that poultry farmers in Hebei province were adding Sudan B, a cancer-causing red dye used in industrial manufacturing, to the feed of their ducks. The dye caused the ducks to lay eggs with a reddish yolks instead of yellow ones, fetching a higher price.

“Food safety is a problem for China,” says Mao Qunan, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Health in Beijing. However, he adds that “So many times the media says the problem is so big, so huge. But I don’t agree with these comments on the safety of the food.”

In 2005, the Ministry of Health reported that 9,021 people were stricken by food poisoning, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. Of the 235 deaths that year, around half were caused by poisonous chemicals in the food. The rest were from bacterial contamination and other causes.

But those numbers may understate the problem because it is often difficult to pinpoint the cause of such illnesses in rural China. At least 300 million people are estimated to be affected by food-borne disease in China each year, according to Mr. Bekedam of the WHO. The WHO estimates that food-borne disease costs China between $4.7 billion and $14.0 billion a year in medical-care expenses and loss of productivity.

Meanwhile, China’s food problems are becoming the world’s problems, as agriculture exports surge. As of last year, China accounted for about 12% of global trade in fruits and vegetables, challenging U.S. producers in three main areas, including apple juice, fresh apples and fresh vegetables, according to a USDA report published last year. The U.S. is China’s largest market for exports of apple juice. China’s agricultural exports to the U.S. have soared over the past three decades, rising to $2.26 billion in 2006 from $133 million in 1980, according to the USDA.

The current problems with pet foods began in mid-March. Ontario-based Menu Foods Inc., which produces major brands like Eukanuba and Iams, recalled its “cuts and gravy” style pet food in cans and pouches after receiving information that pets that ate the product had fallen ill. The recall was later extended to more products. Within nearly a week of the recall, the company received complaints or expressions of concern from about 200,000 consumers.

The FDA suggested that ChemNutra Inc., a Las Vegas-based supplier of wheat gluten to Menu Foods, had received contaminated gluten from Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. in Jiangsu. The U.S. government halted shipments of wheat gluten to ChemNutra and is now requiring that all shipments of wheat gluten from China be scrutinized.

China is carrying out a nationwide inspection on the quality of its wheat gluten, a report from state-run Xinhua news agency said Friday.

A manager of Xuzhou Anying, surnamed Mao, told Reuters last week that his company never sold any wheat gluten to the U.S. “I don’t understand how come they are blaming us,” he said. But when representatives from ChemNutra met with Mr. Mao on March 31 in China to discuss the alleged contamination, he “was apologetic and embarrassed and promised to do an investigation,” said a person familiar with the matter. This person said that the wheat gluten was shipped through an intermediary before arriving in the U.S.

Reached at the company on Friday, a manager who gave his name as Mao Lijun, who may or may not have been the same Mr. Mao, said that he was busy and hung up his phone when asked about the allegations.

Wheat gluten — a mixture to two proteins — is used as a thickening agent in pet food gravy and is in many products for humans, from cereals to pasta. Exports from China have been brisk, with demand exceeding supply this year, according to Li Wenxin, sales manager at Qingdao Wansheng Chemical Co., a trading company in Shandong province that exports wheat gluten to several countries, including Australia, India, Italy and Russia. The FDA says there is no evidence that any of the wheat gluten imported from Xuzhou Anying Biologic has entered the human food supply.

Marc Ullman, a lawyer for ChemNutra, said that at this point, it is still not completely clear how the wheat gluten became contaminated. The wheat gluten that was imported from China wasn’t tested for melamine, and testing for the chemical isn’t routinely done in the industry, he said. “There’s no way to test every container of food for every potential toxin coming into the United States.”

May 22, 2007 @ 6:45 am | Comment

“Otherwise, America can kiss her ass goodbye once China dumps 1.2 trillion USD”

And so can China, which is heavily dependent on the US for exports. The EU is shifting its outsourcing to eastern europe.

Oh yeah, will China die from thirst or poisoning first?

May 22, 2007 @ 8:30 am | Comment


I am glad you ask.

The trade data is from USDA FAS’ “BICO Reports”, and the rejection data is from FDA’s “Import Refusal Reports”. The Refusal Reports (from FDA’s web site) are monthly based so you will have to keep a running total manually on each country.

Using the WaPo’s methodology, according to my calculation, in terms of food safety, Mexico > China > India and all are far worse than Canada. It happens to match their income levels, lo and behold. But China is the headline worthy material, isn’t it?

BTW, I read the WSJ report already. It’s to the points and backed up with facts and figures. I have no qualm about it. I just want everybody to wait and see if a Chinese party is liable to the deaths in Panama.

May 22, 2007 @ 9:05 am | Comment

“And so can China, which is heavily dependent on the US for exports. The EU is shifting its outsourcing to eastern europe.”

lol, no. if China dumped its reserves the U.S would become third world overnight; without U.S markets China will lose a lot of money but the impact won’t be as strongly felt.

“Oh yeah, will China die from thirst or poisoning first?”

Will the U.S. die from obesity or overspending first?

May 22, 2007 @ 9:40 am | Comment


You need to take some economics courses before you open your mouth. The biggest shock to the US market would be oil but I’d bet that the Saudis would step in to cushion the blow. Also, Europe and Japan would step up because the US is the engine for the world’s economy. China would loose its largest market which would lead to massive unemployment which would devastate its economy. China and the US are tied together on this.


Do you have any evidence China wasn’t responsible for the poisoning in Panama? The article I read was pretty persuasive and clearly showed all the steps in the process.

May 22, 2007 @ 11:46 am | Comment

Kenzhu, scroll up a bit & you will see a post from me starting with “here is my reasoning”.

Ferins, don’t feed the trolls.

May 22, 2007 @ 12:19 pm | Comment

“if China dumped its reserves the U.S would become third world overnight; without U.S markets China will lose a lot of money but the impact won’t be as strongly felt.”

China already is a third world country. Without US spending, China will have up to 40% unemployment and massive civil unrest, possibly some breakaway states.

The US is addicted to CHinese crap, but the source of production can be shifted within a few months and life in the US will go on while hundreds of millions of newly unemployed Chinese cannot use shopping to try to ignore the poisonous crap they eat, breathe and drink.

May 22, 2007 @ 1:04 pm | Comment


I asked for evidence not reasoning.

This article lays out the fact. The counterfeit good started in China and ended up in Panama after a stop in Spain. Read it here.

May 22, 2007 @ 1:29 pm | Comment

Kenzhu, the key question is who first altered from industrial-grade to human-grade. NYT hinted that it knew but didn’t state it clearly — if you read the piece slowly and critically. An investigation is ongoing in China. If NYT has the smoking gun, why don’t they hand the information over to the Chinese authorities and cc to US FDA and/or Panamanian officials as well?

May 22, 2007 @ 2:33 pm | Comment


The key question isn’t who altered the barrels but is why diethylene glycol was sold as glycerin. The Panamanian government thought it was adding glycerin to cough syrup not diethylene glycol, which is a well known poison. The circumstantial evidence points to the Yangtze Delta as there was a similar case in China. The biggest problem is that no one tested the barrels to see what was really in there.

May 22, 2007 @ 3:03 pm | Comment

If they have proof instead Judith Miller’d it, why don’t they hand over to the authority so the ones at fault can be prosecuted? Bear in mind, I didn’t rely on NYT’s report. There have been enough dead Iraqis and Americans to teach you not to rely on it.

May 22, 2007 @ 3:10 pm | Comment

They don’t have any proof; they just have very strong circumstantial evidence. Wang Gui Ping was arrested by the Chinese government for selling diethylene glycol as glycerin. His factory was in the same town that manufactured the mislabeled diethylene glycol that the Panamanian government used to manufacture cough syrup. How can you explain the situation?

May 22, 2007 @ 6:19 pm | Comment

“China already is a third world country. Without US spending, China will have up to 40% unemployment and massive civil unrest, possibly some breakaway states.”

More like 15%

“The US is addicted to CHinese crap, but the source of production can be shifted within a few months and life in the US will go on”

Right, and they can go to Indonesia and get even worse quality crap that poisons you as well. After the USD plummets to 100:1 on the Euro.

May 22, 2007 @ 11:44 pm | Comment


Could you please show your calculations and provide links? You must have gone a lot of trouble putting together the data, so please share it.

The BICO pages for China and Mexico show the dollar values of imports. The OASIS refusal pages list each refused shipment but do not give a dollar value.

May 23, 2007 @ 8:27 am | Comment

I stumbled across this interesting little fact:

“Last year the USDA began to legalize the import of Chinese meat. Chickens can now be grown in the U.S., slaughtered in the U.S., shipped to China for “processing,” and then shipped back to the U.S. for human consumption.”

Does this mean it’s still cheaper to send dead chickens roundtrip to Chinese factories than to have undocumented workers chop ’em, fry ’em, and freeze ’em for $6 an hour without benefits? Wow. I don’t think I want to eat chicken that’s gone halfway around the world and back.

May 23, 2007 @ 8:45 am | Comment


Are you a paid shill attempting to influence and/or rebut potentially damaging material on this and other websites?

As I understand it the CCP uses it in an attempt to influence China’s populace?

Not that there is anything wrong with that, in that it is done in almost all countries big enough to have a budget and worried about their image. I am just curious because you have a massive amount of posts defending a pretty indefensible position…

May 23, 2007 @ 12:10 pm | Comment


The new USDA lies/regs allow processing companies to ship meat to be processed in countries where cleanliness, safety regs and labor rights are meaningless.

So chances are that our food was prepared by people with missing limbs, open sores and respiratory diseases who have been working 14 hour shifts for months using tools that haven’t been washed in at least as long.

May 23, 2007 @ 2:35 pm | Comment


Are you a paid shill attempting to influence and/or rebut potentially damaging material on this and other websites?”

Please avoid ad-hominem attacks. I don’t agree with much of what JXie writes, but I appreciate the value of a dissenting voice with whom we can debate.

May 23, 2007 @ 7:20 pm | Comment

ew. i’m glad i buy local.

May 24, 2007 @ 3:36 am | Comment

ew. i’m glad i buy local.

May 24, 2007 @ 3:36 am | Comment

I started to find out the conditions of the slaves in the forced labour camps in China (they wont tell how many there are) when I looked into the persecution of Falun Gong in China.

People who are persecuted, along with actual criminals (as I understand it the real criminals can get reduced sentences for helping to torture free thinkers into submission) are herded about in nasty butt conditions, they sleep on cold wet floors, they have STDs spreading around, no sunlight, lots squashed together in small rooms, no good hygene…

And then those people are forced to assemble and package childrens toys, undies, chopsticks, you name it. They work a million hours a day until they have open sores and the scratching of the private parts and, well, just think about it…

May 24, 2007 @ 6:37 am | Comment

wow, a million hours a day!

May 24, 2007 @ 6:57 am | Comment

Hey dont make fun ! ( ;

May 24, 2007 @ 9:50 am | Comment

Maybe they’re getting a bit more serious now. Maybe not…


May 29, 2007 @ 4:08 pm | Comment

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