U.S. to China on Pet Food: The Market Will Be the Enforcer!

Talks end without new plan to guard against tainted food imports.

May 23, 2007 — -- U.S. and Chinese officials held their first high-level face-to-face meeting since pets in North America were sickened or killed by pet food contaminated with tainted wheat gluten imported from China. Several U.S. Cabinet members and top Chinese trade officials completed two days of talks in Washington, D.C., and the Bush administration said it made it perfectly clear food safety is a "top concern."

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told ABC News that China is aware that the "world market will not tolerate unreliable products. And China, through its state-run media, has replied, saying the handling of the 'sensational pet food scandal was a shameful example of a lack of professionalism.'"

The officials reached some agreements on financial services and aviation, but no new deals were reached on ensuring pet food safety.

"They want to focus on those responsible -- who will be punished. We want to talk about systemic problems," Leavitt said, referring to discussions about certifying vendors and food safety oversight programs.

In March the first of several pet food recalls was announced after cats and dogs started dying. The Food and Drug Administration has since determined that a protein ingredient used to make pet food contained chemicals that became toxic. Packaged as wheat gluten and rice protein, the ingredients were actually just cheap wheat flour "spiked" with melamine and another compound to increase protein content.

Leavitt told ABC News that the Chinese delegation understands its reputation is at stake and it could be costly. "The market will be the enforcer," and sanctions will be "harsh and immediate," Leavitt said.

FDA investigators were delayed getting into China to visit the two suspect plants. By the time they arrived, the plants had been cleaned out. Leavitt said that was discussed with the Chinese delegation, adding, "We will talk about how to smooth that out."

While the Chinese delegation didn't comment on the pet food problem, the China Daily, the English-language government newspaper, just published a blistering editorial. The newspaper directed its scorn toward government "watchdogs": "They first denied, then soon admitted, that the contaminated pet food originated in China." The editorial suggests the government may need to raise standards to guarantee safety.

Secretary Leavitt said China must ensure the "reliability and trustworthiness" of its products. There will be additional talks this week on the pet food scandal that are expected to be more detailed. But Leavitt called the first two days of talks a "very constructive discussion."