F.D.A. Detains Chinese Imports for Testing

(New York Times)



Candy, snacks, bakery products, pet food and other Chinese products that contain milk will be detained at the border until tests prove that they are not contaminated, the federal government announced Thursday.


The Food and Drug Administration said it issued the alert because of concern about such products being contaminated with the toxic chemical melamine. It was discovered in infant formula in September and has sickened more than 50,000 infants in China and killed at least four.


Since that time, melamine has been found in a wide range of other products, including milk, eggs and fish feed. As a result, companies in the United States have recalled several products generally sold in Asian specialty stores, including a nondairy creamer and Mr. Brown brands of instant coffee and tea. But to date, the contamination here was not thought to be widespread.


“We’re taking this action because it’s the right thing to do for the public health,” said Dr. Steven Solomon, a deputy associate F.D.A. commissioner.


But consumer advocates said the agency’s action was too little and too late.


“Although F.D.A.’s action today is a step in the right direction, it does not do enough to ensure consumer safety, especially since melamine contamination in Chinese products continues to broaden,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.


As a result of the latest alert, Chinese products that contain milk or milk powder will automatically be detained at the border until the manufacturer or its customer has the product tested and it is found to be free of contamination, or they show documentation indicating that the product does not contain milk or milk-derived ingredients.


“The burden shifts to the importer,” Dr. Solomon said.


F.D.A. analyses have detected melamine and cyanuric acid, another contaminant, in “a number of products that contain milk or milk-derived ingredients, including candy and beverages,” according to an alert that the agency sent to field personnel. The alert also noted that inspectors in more than 13 other countries had discovered melamine in Chinese products including milk, yogurt, frozen desserts, biscuits, chocolates and cookies.


The agency routinely blocks imports of individual food products, but it is rare for it to block an entire category of one country’s foods. Last year, the F.D.A. blocked five types of farm-raised seafood as well as vegetable protein from China because of repeated instances of contamination.


Unscrupulous food and feed dealers in China add melamine to their products because it artificially inflates protein levels. Because it dissolves poorly, melamine can block the body’s filtering system, potentially leading to kidney failure and death.


Dr. Solomon said the alert was likely to apply mostly to specialty products sold in Asian markets. But Benjamin England, a former lawyer at the agency, described the latest alert as “massive” and said it could affect “a tremendous amount of goods.”


“It’s going to jam the ports up all the way up the supply chain,” said Mr. England, who represents food supply companies.


As a result of the earlier alerts on seafood and vegetable protein, many private laboratories that perform product tests for F.D.A. review already have long waiting lists, Mr. England said. In addition, the agency takes three to four weeks to review submitted tests, Mr. England said, so delays in shipping will be significant.


The import alert could extend to Chinese shrimp, Mr. England said, because much of it is breaded and the breading could contain dairy products. China is also one of the world’s biggest makers of supplements, and some protein powders and shakes are made largely with powdered milk.


The effect of the alert is likely to be long-lasting, Mr. England said, because importers must prove that each and every shipment is free of contamination.


“It’s impossible to get off the alert list,” Mr. England said.


China exports a relatively small but growing amount of dairy products to the United States, about $13 million in 2007, most of which was casein, a dairy ingredient. (By contrast, New Zealand exported $697 million to the United States). But the figures do not include food products and dietary supplements that include milk or milk-derived ingredients, a potentially much larger universe.


“Today’s F.D.A. Import Alert on dairy products from China should have little or no impact on the U.S. dairy industry,” said Peggy Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the International Dairy Foods Association, a trade group. “Dairy imports from China account for less than 1 percent of total dairy products imported to this country annually.”


Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, criticized the agency’s response, saying it should have acted sooner. The import alert should include egg and fish products “given that animal feed has been found to be contaminated with melamine,” she said in a release.


“Clearly, the problems involving melamine in China are significantly deeper than F.D.A. would have us believe,” Ms. DeLauro said.


The import detention order comes at a delicate time. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O. Leavitt and Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, commissioner of the F.D.A. will travel next week to China to open agency offices in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Months of negotiations were needed for it to gain permission to open offices there.


Michael Herndon, an agency spokesman, said the new import order “shouldn’t affect the opening of F.D.A. offices.” 11-14-08



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