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Datamyne Blog

Covering trade & transport, with tips on using import-export data to advantage

China’s Alarming Record

More FDA inspections and access to results are called for

A new report from Food and Water Watch reprises a lengthy list of Chinese import disasters, from melamine-contaminated pet food in 2007 to antibiotic-laced honey in 2010. The point of Decade of Dangerous Imports is that China is exporting its food safety problems along with a growing share of the US food supply. Based on 2009 import and consumption statistics, FWW says the odds of consuming Chinese products in the US are 2 out of 3 for apple juice, and 3 out of 4 for tilapia. Based on Datamyne’s 2011 data, the odds have improved to about 4 out of 5 for both tilapia and apple juice.

The watchdog group acknowledges that the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 will make “small but significant improvements” in US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory power over imports … but it fears that “trade trumps food safety.” Indeed, the volume of trade between China and the US makes it unlikely that their respective governments will lobby to remove agriculture from the World Trade Organization (WTO) or go back to square one and reset the current trade agenda, as the WFF recommends.

But the WFF also calls for an increase in inspections of food imports and off-shore food facilities. While it would require more funding, which may be problematic right now, an increase in inspections is one of the main thrusts of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Certainly, more inspections are expected in China, where the Food and Drug Law Institute just hosted a well-attended conference on US and Chinese regulation of food, drugs, dietary supplements, medical devices and cosmetics.  “Chinese food-facilities should become comfortable with FDA’s presence, which will only increase in the coming years,” says Benjamin L. England of compliance consultancy FDAImports, sponsor and presenter at the FDLI conference. The inspections are not optional for any company that wants to export to the US, England advises. The new law authorizes the FDA to bar imports from companies that refuse inspection.

The step-up in inspections has begun. We know this because the FDA last month opened access to a searchable database of its inspection records. So far, data is available for two fiscal years: 10/01/2008-09/30/2009 and 10/01/2009-09/30/2010. Just three food facilities in China were inspected for “Foodborne Biological Hazards” in 2009. In 2010, the FDA inspected 39 Chinese facilities, for a 77% increase. Of course, those 39 are a tiny fraction of the more than 30,000 large food processing companies in China. (It should be noted that China has its own inspection agency, the Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. Current trade agreements support collaboration between the FDA and AQSIQ  – and require registration with AQSIQ by Chinese exporters whose product categories have high import refusal rates or are otherwise risky.)

It’s the access to the inspection record databases that intrigues us at Datamyne. We took the list of Chinese food companies inspected in 2010 and searched our import data for their current trade activities. So, for example, we were able to look at shipments from Zhanjiang Universal Seafood Corp., whose Zhanjiang facility was inspected by the FDA last April (with no need for corrective action found). Universal Seafood’s top US customer so far this year is Beaver Street Fisheries (second-ranked US consignee for Chinese frozen tilapia, according to our free first-quarter report on this trade). Other consignees for the 1,059 metric tons of seafood shipped to the US by Zhanjiang this year through May 15 are South American Beef, National Fish and Seafood Limited, and  … well, you get the idea: more consignees and other transactional details are available in the bill-of-lading data.

The added transparency makes a virtue of necessity: The ability to confirm the FDA inspection of the Chinese processing facility that produced the seafood to be sold in the US will be of value to both exporters and importers.

The FDA’s new access to inspection records is part of a larger Transparency Initiative. You can read the agency’s report on “next steps” to improve transparency to regulated industry later this year here.

Date posted: June 21, 2011

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