Money Matters - Simplified

Chinese Protein Export Scandal

China's messy food safety situation was brought to light by a spate of pet deaths in the United States caused by contaminated Chinese exports.

China does not have a quality control system in place and if the current situation involving tainted food additives is any indication, global consumers of Chinese products, particularly food products, should be aware of what they're buying for many years to come. This incident has brought much needed attention to the country's messy food safety situation, state media said on Wednesday.

The Chinese protein export scandal was first identified after the wide recall of many brands of cat and dog food in response to reports of renal failure in pets, associated with wet pet foods made with wheat gluten from a Chinese company. About one month later, contaminated rice protein from a different source in China was found to cause kidney failure in pets in the United States, while contaminated corn gluten was associated with kidney failure in pets in South Africa.

The Chinese government has been slow to respond. Initially, the Government as well as the manufacturers denied the fact that vegetable protein was even exported from China and refused for weeks to allow foreign food safety investigators to enter the country. Eventually, the Chinese government acknowledged that contamination had occurred and arrested the managers of two protein manufacturers identified so far. However, the Chinese government still continues to deny that the contamination could have had adverse affects in pets or potentially humans.

The first and most easily identified contaminant in the vegetable protein is melamine, a chemical used in plastics, fertilizers and flame retardants. There is evidence that the melamine was deliberately mixed with the product since the company bought large supplies of it in order to cheat buyers into thinking that they were getting higher-grade feed. Though melamine is not approved for human or animal consumption in the US, it is not considered to be especially dangerous to them either. Therefore, investigations are on to examine the role of other contaminants found to be present in the proteins, including cyanuric acid.

Unfortunately, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and FDA discovered that livestock such as hogs and chickens (the animals that humans eat) also ate the contaminated food and some farms have been reported to be affected. However, there have been no reports of any resulting human illness so far, and it's highly unlikely that any humans will get sick from eating animals that consumed melamine.

This incident also brings to light the bigger problem i.e. China’s domestic food safety situation. It is an open secret that the manufacturers usually employ higher standards when it comes to exports. This has lead to a popular public opinion against the Chinese government’s double standards and a persistent public distrust of the messy food safety monitoring network for the domestic market.

China's reputation as an honest global trading partner is being seriously undermined by this incident. To restore confidence, China needs to confront the issue and deal with it and also incorporate total quality management techniques in its industries.