Dazzling Knowledge

Friday, April 06, 2007

Gunter Glieben Gluten Globen

No doubt you've heard the old stereotype that the Chinese, and some other Asian groups, see cats and dogs more as a menu item rather than a household pet, and so they would kill them without hesitation for food. (Has this been substantiated?)

Now, however, it seems the Chinese are killing them with food, albeit indirectly. If you own either pet, then you know about the massive recall now underway of over 100 different pet food brands. The recall is in response to the discovery that several cats and dogs have been fatally poisoned by tainted wheat gluten, a major ingredient in dry pet food.

The wheat gluten, a protein-rich meat substitute, is shipped to the United States from China. An as-yet unknown amount of it was tainted with melamine, a chemical found in plastics and pesticides.

The possible cause is described here, taken from a recent article in Yahoo! News:
According to state regulations, exported food should be inspected by Zeng's agency for poisonous substances. China's customs service is supposed to allow a product to pass only when a certificate of quality supervision is provided.

It wasn't immediately clear if those procedures were followed in the case of the wheat gluten, which is a protein-rich meat substitute developed in China and most commonly used in vegetarian and Asian cuisines.

Las Vegas-based ChemNutra Inc., which imported the gluten and sold it to companies that make pet food, said this week that Xuzhou Anying never reported the presence of melamine in the content analysis it provided. ChemNutra previously said none of the tainted material went to manufacturers of food for humans.

Mao Lijun, general manager of Xuzhou Anying, on Friday would say only that the allegations were "under investigation."

Chemical scares and mass poisonings are common in China, which has been struggling to improve a dismal food-safety record. Manufacturers often mislabel food products or add illegal substances to them. Cooks routinely disregard hygiene rules or mistakenly use industrial chemicals instead of salt and other ingredients.

The FDA is too small and unequipped to inspect every single import that enters the country. Corruption is rampant here as well as in the People's Republic. And where is the libertarian hook for this story, you might ask? Read on...

Neal Hooker, a professor of agricultural economics at Ohio State University, said that while the FDA cannot inspect every good that comes into the U.S., it does insist that developing countries meet higher production standards for the goods they intend to send to the U.S.

Hooker said the agency can be fairly effective, despite its infrequent product inspections, because it brings pressure to bear on the system of production and works with foreign governments to ensure compliance.

But government regulations are not the only — or even the most effective — means of enforcing high standards. Hooker said the market also offers powerful incentives.

The pet food companies who received tainted ingredients, for instance, "are going to ask for things much more rigorously than a nation can ask for. And they will get them," he said, or they will take their business elsewhere.

Markets, not bureaucracies, should police themselves, since they have the most to lose by letting dangerously inferior products slip through the cracks.

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