Buyer beware

Buyer beware

Nitty-gritty details of trade issues go over the average person's head. But everyone eats, and that's why there's been such a strong reaction to recent news about food safety problems involving Chinese exports.

The subject first made headlines in a big way a few weeks ago when dogs and cats began dying in the U.S. and Canada after eating pet food containing Chinese wheat gluten spiked with melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers.

The pet-food case might have blown over quickly if it had been seen as an aberration. Unfortunately, it wasn't. Problems also have been re-ported with Chinese food and health exports as diverse as fish tainted with banned antibiotics, and toothpaste containing dietylene glycol - the same chemical found in Chinese-made cough medicine blamed for 51 deaths last year in Panama.

Exports of food and health products are a substantial part of China's rapid trade growth. China's agricultural exports to the U.S. totaled $2.26 billion last year and are increasing by double digits. The increase has been matched by problems with adulterated or mislabeled goods. The Food and Drug Administration blocks more food shipments from China than from any other country.

When U.S. and Chinese officials met in Washington last month for economic and trade talks, the safety of Chinese exports of food and health products was part of the discussion. It's an issue that's not going away.

Since the recent reports about food-safety problems, Chinese officials have been busy with damage control. They've pledged to tighten their inspections - a difficult challenge, considering the fragmented state of China's agricultural supply chains, which are built around countless small producers who don't always adhere to proper standards.

Like their counterparts at Customs and Border Protection, FDA inspectors rely on risk assessments to allocate resources to problem areas - for example, giving less scrutiny to Norwegian fish, which have a good safety record, and more attention to Chinese seafood, which is a persistent problem.

But the FDA can't catch everything, and importers also have a responsibility to ensure that the products they're buying are safe. One Chinese official, Yuan Changxiang, a deputy director in the ministry responsible for inspecting imports and exports, made this point in an interview with USA Today. He said U.S. food companies "must . . . be very clear about the standards they need, and don't just look for a cheap price."

In other words, know who you're buying from and make sure your suppliers meet proper standards. Price isn't everything.

Chinese officials promise corrective action on food safety, and it's in their country's self-interest to do so. Importers have a similar self-interest. We've seen the outcry over the poisoning of dogs and cats. Imagine the reaction if the next victims are humans.