Saturday, June 30, 2007

not-terribly-comforting statistics

not-terribly-comforting statistics

the chinese government, in the wake of the melamine food-adulteration scandal, closes 180 "errant" food-processing factories for offenses against food safety and mounts a PR offensive to communicate to the US press how comparatively safe chinese food imports are
In response, the Chinese government reacted at first with defiance and denial. It charged that U.S. authorities were exaggerating the risks, even suggesting that American authorities may be playing up the dangers to fan a backlash against China's imports because of trade disputes between the two nations.

But this week China shifted course by acknowledging problems and cracking down on errant factories, 180 of which were shuttered. At the same time, the Chinese government began to push back in more-sophisticated and nuanced ways, both in Beijing and in Washington.

In Washington, China's team of diplomats -- bulked up in recent years -- has been making almost daily trips to Capitol Hill to try to tamp down growing food-safety concerns and to push back against proposed legislation to pressure Beijing over its trade surplus with the U.S. Chinese diplomats also have begun briefing reporters and distributing fact sheets to try to argue that tainted Chinese products represent only a tiny portion of the country's sales to the U.S., and that the risks shouldn't be overblown.

"In certain quarters, people are trying to create a panic about Chinese products," a senior Chinese official said Thursday, during an unusual discussion with a small group of reporters.

Chinese officials used the occasion to pass around a three-page fact sheet, entitled "Chinese Food Exports Are Safe." The paper stated that last year, the Food and Drug Administration turned away less than 1% of the food shipments sent to the U.S. from China, a figure it said was slightly less than the Chinese refusal rate last year of food shipments from the U.S. "The quality rate of Chinese food exports are above 99%," the report said.

Well, that's a comfort, yes?

Well, no.
Just 1.3% of imported fish, vegetables, fruit and other foods are inspected — yet those government inspections regularly reveal food unfit for human consumption.


With only a minuscule percentage of shipments inspected, they say the nation is vulnerable to harm from abroad, where rules and regulations governing food production are often more lax than they are at home.

"FDA doesn't have enough resources or control over this situation presently," said Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, which works with industry to improve safety.

Last month alone, FDA detained nearly 850 shipments of grains, fish, vegetables, nuts, spice, oils and other imported foods for issues ranging from filth to unsafe food coloring to contamination with pesticides to salmonella.

And that's with just 1.3% of the imports inspected. As for the other 98.7%, it's not inspected, much less detained, and goes to feed the nation's growing appetite for imported foods.


FDA inspections focus on foods known to be at risk for contamination, including fish, shellfish, fruit and vegetables. Food from countries or producers previously shown to be problematic also are flagged for a closer look.

Not really
Last year, inspectors sampled just 20,662 shipments out of more than 8.9 million that arrived at American ports. China, which in one decade has become the third-largest exporter of food, by value, to the United States, sent 199,000 shipments, of which less than 2 percent were sampled, former officials with the agency said.

Less than 2% of a specific subset of food imported from China was inspected last year.

1% of total chinese food imports were turned back.

I leave as an exercise for the reader how confident they should feel about the other 99 percent.

Amused: the WSJ article on this is accompanied by an online poll
Do you check the country origin when making everyday purchases? Share your thoughts.

Why this is amusing
Meat packers and other agribusinesses have formed a new lobbying coalition to block the U.S. Department of Agriculture from requiring meat to be packaged with a country-of-origin label.

The group — the Meat Promotion Coalition — has hired a lobbying firm that specializes in agricultural issues to make the case on Capitol Hill that country-of-origin labeling is too costly to implement.

Cargill, Tyson Food, the National Cattlemen’s Association and the National Pork Producers Council are among the nine members of the new coalition, which hired the firm Lesher & Russell.

In a twist, the American Farm Bureau Federation, which had supported mandatory country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, is now part of the coalition.

Critics already succeeded in delaying the implementation of the labeling rule — which would enable consumers to see whether their meat was 100 percent homegrown — by attaching an amendment to an omnibus appropriations measure in 2003.


Meat packers and large agribusinesses oppose the rule because they want continued access to imported meat, which is often cheaper, without facing any potential penalty in the marketplace from consumers who may think American meat is safer, said Tom Buis, the chief lobbyist for the National Farmers Union, a group of 300,000 farm and ranch families that wants mandatory country-of-origin labeling.

That was 2005. This is now
Unless the law is changed, or eliminated, country-of-origin labeling (COOL) will be enforced on beef and pork sometime this fall. The law has been on the books since the implementation of the 2002 farm bill. Forces that fear its implications have managed to delay it and are now making a last push to kill the program and have Congress start over. No one is going to get out of this unscathed, from producer to packer, as we are witnessing another "good idea" in concept that ends up in a "regulatory quagmire" that may not really benefit anyone.

Guess the WSJ hasn't heard. They don't really keep up with import and regulation issues.

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