I spent the last few days researching the subject of bogus imports from China to the U.S. for a potential article.
On one hand, I wish I hadn't -- the tale is both disturbing and, frankly speaking, disgusting -- but on the other hand, I'm glad I did, and thought I'd pass along some of what I found (both because we're all on a need-to-know basis here and because misery loves company).
By now, most of you have probably heard of the spread of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, the kidney-killing cough syrup or the pet foods that cause liver failure, that have been splashed across the headlines as of late. The most recent news reports on the subject say that some toxic additives may have even been intentionally introduced as a protein booster or, as in the case of the antifreeze/acetominophen cough syrup, a lower-cost input.
However, the horror story doesn't end, or even begin, there. Even scarier are the tales of poisoned milk powder, or toys with lead paint, to which children are especially vulnerable.
Some of the most chilling tales I found were buried in the dry details of customs rejection reports, where a long list charge codes for everything from the many different forms of "ADULTERATION" (one read: Food appears to be, in whole or in part, the product of a diseased animal or of an animal which has died otherwise than slaughter) to "WRONG IDEN" (Article appears to be offered for sale under the name of another food) appear much more often than one would reasonably expect or like to hear -- and those are a few of the most benign-sounding of the bunch (though having diseased animals exported from bird flu territory doesn't exactly make me reach for the McNuggets, these customs reports have me seriously thinking about swearing off meat and fish altogether).
One representative example is a shipment of preserved seedless prunes from Nanching Foodstuffs Co. of Chenghai, which was rejected on April 18th for the following six violations:
In case you were wondering, the designation FILTHY means that "the article appears to consist in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or be otherwise unfit for food."
Also in case you were wondering, cyclamate and dulcin are artificial sweeteners that were banned in 1969 and 1950, respectively, as being carcinogenic.
If there's an upside to a "FILTHY" label, at least when something is decomposing it is obviously unfit for human consumption, meaning the exporter can't just load it onto another boat and make another run at breaking through (our frighteningly lax) U.S. customs (where almost six years past 9/11 only 1% of our incoming cargo is inspected).
Despite all of this, I don't agree with the extremists/isolationists who say that these toxic exports are a form of state-sponsored terrorism -- after all, the poisoned milk powder killed dozens of Chinese infants, and a Canadian company was recently found to also be using melanine as an animal feed additive at a manufacturing plant here in Ohio.
Instead, I'd attribute this great leap backwards as simple proof that the Chinese have now been infected with a virulent strain of Western-style profit motive, only the problem is magnified because unscrupulous manufacturers operate in a much less regulated environment that allows for rampant abuse of what has now become a global public trust.
This unfolding "cultural development" recently led a Chinese company to do what centuries of Mongol invaders couldn't -- tear a hole in the Great Wall -- just so that its mining trucks could avoid paying tolls.
It should also lead to a new set of best practices for importers. After all, remember Ben Franklin's old adage: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Especially if that cure is cough syrup from China...