Has your dog exhibited unpleasant health effects -- such as, oh, death -- after eating jerky treats imported from China? If so, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration would really “like to hear from you or your veterinarian.”
That, in essence, is the white flag of surrender the FDA raised on its homepage this week, effectively conceding its inability to figure out what, precisely, in imported jerky treats has sickened 3,600 dogs and 10 cats since 2007. According to the agency, approximately 580 of those cats and dogs have died from causes that include kidney failure and gastrointestinal bleeding.
Yet, despite the fact that the agency has tested more than 1,200 jerky treats since 2011, visited Chinese pet food plants and engaged in collaborations across governments and academia, there’s no reason to believe that the agency’s regulators are any closer to understanding the outbreak than they were six years ago. So, left to their own devices, they’re asking for help from the public.
This should worry more than pet owners. According to U.S. government data collected by Food & Water Watch, a nongovernmental group concerned with food safety issues, U.S. imports of Chinese food products for human consumption have increased from 2.3 billion tons in 2003 to 4.1 billion tons in 2012. In effect, Americans would be well within their rights to wonder: If the agency can’t secure the jerky treats, what guarantee is there it can secure the 367.2 million gallons of Chinese apple juice Americans imported in 2012?
China’s food safety issues are well-documented, stomach-churning, and -- justifiably -- the source of intense popular anger at the Communist Party and its food safety regulators (or lack thereof). In just the last few weeks, alone, Chinese consumers have had the misfortune to learn that cooking oil is sometimes made from the “skins and buttocks of chickens and ducks,” according to Xinhua, the state newswire, that much of the beef jerky in Fujian Province is actually chemically treated pork and that Air China, the nation’s signature airline, allegedly served expired food that sickened 30 passengers on an Oct. 6 flight. What unites these and most Chinese food safety scandals is fraud, especially in the sourcing and labeling of food.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the FDA’s sole tangible lead in the hunt for the source of the jerky-related illnesses is fraud-related. According to the agency’s Tuesday notice, its regulators, while inspecting Chinese pet food manufacturers, found that “one firm used falsified receiving documents for glycerin, a jerky ingredient.” No details are given on what, if any, effects the falsification of glycerin (if that’s what happened) may have had, but the notice does report that Chinese authorities informed the FDA that they’d “seized products at the firm and suspended its exports.” Was the FDA able to verify that claim? The statement doesn’t say. Is the FDA in a position to ensure that such falsification doesn’t happen again? The answer to the question is an obvious no, but it’s worth asking, nonetheless.
After all, in late August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service affirmed that four Chinese poultry processors are “equivalent” to those in the U.S. and thus suitable to export cooked chicken to the American market (the raw chicken, however, must be imported from the U.S. or Canada). No plants are exporting chicken, yet, but if and when they do, it will happen with only periodic inspections by American regulators.
Certainly, Chinese factories will have an economic incentive to send safe chicken back to the U.S. But if, one day, some of those chickens cause human illness, is there any reason to believe that American regulators will be able to find the cause? Based on the fruitless six-year search for the source of jerky-treat illness, the answer is surely no.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)