U.S. Asks China for Significant Changes in Food Safety Relationship

U.S. wants to bolster protection on food imports from China.

May 24, 2007 — -- Publicly, U.S. officials sound quite conciliatory about their talks with the Chinese over the pet food debacle. But it appears that behind closed doors, the Americans are talking tough.

Cabinet secretaries and their staffs presented the Chinese with a list of "requests" to reach "goals related to food safety." And the Americans want a lot. "They [the Chinese delegation] responded in a positive way, but they need to talk to other ministers," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

But the list of requests is wide ranging and the Chinese could consider it quite intrusive. The United States wants all food and feed exporters to be registered. They would be the only manufacturers allowed to send products to America. Also on the U.S. "request list": Officials want the full details of the Chinese food safety system, and raw data -- not just results -- of tests of regulated products.

Possibly most telling about the recent episode is a request for quick access to China and many of its companies. Food and Drug Administration investigators were delayed getting into China because they weren't granted visas quickly, according to the FDA. And when those investigators got to the two factories suspected of spiking wheat flour with melamine and other chemicals, the facilities had been cleaned out.

So the United States is asking for multiyear visas for inspectors and the right to audit registered Chinese firms to make sure they meet "U.S. food safety requirements." "We need to validate," says Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. "Let's have an open process." The high-level Chinese delegation that received this list is in Washington to discuss trade relations.

It was in March that the first of many pet food recalls was ordered. Menu Foods recalled 60 million cans and pouches of wet food. Just about every week since then, other manufacturers and Menu Foods have issued additional recalls covering dry food and treats as well.

The FDA says the two Chinese firms took cheap wheat flour and added melamine and other chemicals to make the product look like the more expensive wheat gluten or rice protein.

The safety agency still counts fewer than 20 official pet deaths linked to the tainted food, but it admits that thousands of Americans have claimed their animals died from the adulterated food.