“International Humiliation” on Food Safety May Be in China’s Best Interest

– the author of the following, Wang Feng, is a Beijing-based journalist.

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I awoke this morning to the headline in the Chinese newspapers: “China bans diethylene glycol in toothpaste.” My first reaction: Finally, the bureaucrats have given in to international pressure. It seems China can use all the international humiliation it can get.

Diethylene glycol, a toxic industrial solvent, is often used in China to replace the similar but more expensive glycerine, a harmless food additive. Chinese-made toothpaste containing diethylene glycol has been discovered and recalled all over the world. But until this morning, Chinese officials had insisted that a small amount of diethylene glycol in toothpaste was harmless to the human body. Never mind that a Chinese shipment of it was blamed for the deaths of over 100 Panamanians after a drug maker there put it into a cough syrup, believing it was glycerine. Chinese officials maintained that it was a safe additive in toothpaste even in the very statement that later banned such a use: “There is no known case of direct human poisoning by toothpaste with diethylene glycol,” the statement said. Yeah, right. Pardon me if I would still rather do without it in mine.

I am happy with the outcome now – that is, if China can really enforce this ban effectively. Good luck with that. Our government has, under mounting U.S. pressure, vowed more than a few times to root out pirated DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters. But guess how much I paid for a copy of “Spiderman III” at my neighborhood store?

The toothpaste saga is a textbook case of a public health and food safety crisis that wouldn’t have even raised eyebrows inside China, much less been addressed and resolved on a national level, if it hadn’t escalated into an international scandal. And the toothpaste issue is a relatively minor case in a string of serious crises that have continuously tarnished the “Made in China” label. Among those are the recent American pet food scare and the Panamanian cough syrup deaths (although I’ve never quite figured out why the deaths of 17 U.S. cats got so much more worldwide news coverage than the deaths of more than 100 Panamanians.)

Even when domestic scandals do break, they aren’t usually handled in a way that instills public confidence. When a fake medicine killed dozens of patients in China a year ago, it triggered a national outcry and a subsequent government investigation. In the end, officials announced only that they had fined the factory, and suspended its license “pending further inspection and improvement.” The public was told nothing else — why the Chinese FDA had approved the drug in the first place, or why regulators hadn’t found the problem until the patients were dying in agony.

The final revelation came earlier this year when Zheng Xiaoyu, then head of the Chinese FDA, was sacked, investigated for corruption and swiftly sentenced to death. He lost his appeal six weeks later and was executed this past Monday. In the media storm surrounding Zheng’s downfall, we learned that the man had almost single-handedly approved tens of thousands of drug licenses without following due procedure, pocketing millions in bribes from pharmaceutical firms. His corrupt administration was also blamed for some of the international crises, including the Panamanian poisoning case. Zheng’s execution was no surprise to observers. Many believe he was made into a scapegoat, a convenient target for focusing public wrath.

So, transparency at last? Not according to Zheng’s lawyers. They tried hard to spare his life, citing the amount of money involved (much less in comparison to many other convicted corrupt officials sentenced only to life in prison), and his cooperation with investigators. But Zheng’s trial was also one of the most secretive and least publicized in recent years. The government never released the details of its case against him, and no one knew which companies had bribed him until his lawyers defied a government gag order and posted court documents on the Internet. They did so in a desperate protest against the shroud of secrecy under which the case was handled.

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