U.S. Restricts China Milk Products

FDA Forces Importers to Prove Shipments Contain No Melamine After Positive Tests

(Wall Street Journal, DC)



The Food and Drug Administration has restricted the entry of all food products from China containing milk after inspectors found evidence of melamine contamination, which has sickened tens of thousands of Chinese infants and caused at least four deaths.


The FDA directive requires importers to prove their food and drink shipments don't contain the industrial chemical melamine before they can be released to U.S. markets. The order may affect a big chunk of China's $3.8 billion in annual food and beverage exports to the U.S. It comes as Democrats in Congress are criticizing the agency's handling of food-safety problems and threatening to alter its responsibilities.


The Chinese products being held in U.S. ports include baby food, baked goods, breakfast food, candies, chocolate products, cheese, ice cream, beverages, pet food and lab-animal food.


An FDA official said the agency acted after about 60 tests of such products as candy and crackers. It found traces of melamine in some and a melamine-related compound in others. He said the agency hasn't received reports of illnesses linked to melamine in food.


The timing of the move was awkward, coinciding with a meeting next week between Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and top Chinese officials in Beijing. Mr. Leavitt and FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach are set to open FDA offices in three Chinese cities, part of what they say is a new effort to cooperate with Beijing on food safety.


The FDA official said China received one day's advance notice of the new food restrictions.


China's foreign ministry declined to comment on the FDA decision and referred reporters to regulatory agencies. The country's main consumer-protection watchdog, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, as well as the Ministry of Commerce had no immediate comment.


Ben England, a former FDA official who now advises Chinese producers, said the U.S. government action could drive up prices, because foods made with milk, as well as any other foods in the same shipping container, would be held in port, pending clearance. "This will stop a lot of cargo anywhere from six weeks to three months," said Mr. England, founder of FDAImports.com. "This is going to be very, very expensive."


The FDA disagreed and said the percentage of food subject to the import alert is small. "We do not expect a significant impact on trade," a spokesman said.


The agency said it won't release the imported food unless an independent laboratory verifies that representative samples contain no melamine or cyanuric acid, a melamine derivative. The products can also be released if labels or manufacturing records show they don't contain milk.


The products tested by the FDA are found mostly in ethnic stores, but some could be sold at mainstream supermarkets, said Steve Solomon, the FDA's deputy associate commissioner for compliance policy.


This isn't the first time food from China has raised alarms in the U.S. and led to FDA restrictions. Pet food using wheat flour tainted with melamine was suspected in the deaths of thousands of pets in the U.S. last year. As a result, the FDA automatically blocks Chinese ingredients such as rice gluten and rice protein. The FDA also blocks certain farm-raised seafood, because of concerns about illegal antibiotics.


The U.S. has suffered a series of outbreaks involving food-borne illnesses, including a months-long string of salmonella cases traced to jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico.


Melamine in infant formula has sickened more than 53,000 children in China. The U.S. doesn't import infant formula from China, but inspectors from the FDA and states such as California and Connecticut have found melamine in products such as candies in Asian markets. That led the FDA to block foods from 10 Chinese companies making chocolate products and White Rabbit candies. Thursday's move was a rare case of the agency restricting products from an entire country.


"The FDA should have acted sooner to ban these milk products from entering the country," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.), a critic of the agency who has proposed stripping it of its responsibility for regulating food. "It is disappointing that the ban did not apply to egg and fish products, given that animal feed has been found to be contaminated with melamine."


The FDA alert said some Chinese producers watered down milk and then added melamine to increase the nitrogen content, giving the appearance of normal protein levels in tests. Much of it ended up in infant formula and dried milk powder used in making other food products.


More than 13 countries in Asia and elsewhere have found melamine-contaminated ingredients from China in such products as chocolate, yogurt, frozen desserts, biscuits, cake and cookies, the agency said.


Among regulators, a consensus has emerged that melamine can be safely consumed in concentrations of less than 2.5 parts per million. Hong Kong has tested thousands of products for melamine because it imports much of its food from mainland China. Most were cleared, but some products, including eggs, exceeded the limit.


Meanwhile, in China, a Beijing-based lawyer representing families whose children were sickened by melamine-tainted milk, Xu Zhiyong, said that a group of attorneys representing such clients were preparing to file a group lawsuit on behalf of about 100 families. "We want the voices of the victims not to be ignored," Mr. Xu said. "They should get fair compensation." 11-14-08




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