Another week, another food-safety crisis in China. Several news networks — Associated Press, Australian Press and Xinhua — report that 11 people have died and anywhere from 120 to 140 were sickened by contaminated vinegar. Stoking tensions further is the reason so many were poisoned at once: The victims live in a small village in far-west Xinjiang province and are ethnic Uighurs, the minority group whose desire for political independence from Beijing led to brutally suppressed riots in 2009. Uighurs are overwhelmingly Muslim, and most of the small village, about 150 people, had gathered for an iftar meal to break their Ramadan fast.

The poisoning appears to be due to ethylene glycol; the vinegar had been stored in barrels that previously contained antifreeze. According to the AP, investigators haven’t yet been able to say whether the vinegar was put in the barrels out of ignorance, making it a problem of accidental contamination, or deliberately by an unscrupulous producer seeking to cut corners.

It’s the second vinegar scandal in China this month. Two weeks ago, an official of the association that oversees vinegar production in Shanxi province claimed that 95 percent of its highly regarded “aged” vinegar is dosed with industrial acid in order to cut fermentation time and turn out batches faster.

And those are just the latest. They follow the meat that glowed in the dark; the tainted buns; the exploding watermelons; the 40 tons of bean sprouts containing antibiotics and carcinogens; the rice contaminated with heavy metals; the mushrooms imbued with bleach; and the pork so dosed with banned stimulants that athletes attending an international meet in Shanghai had to be told which restaurants were safe to eat at.

Three years after the melamine-in-milk scandal that made 300,000 children sick, and two years after China passed its first-ever food safety law in response, the country is still struggling to keep its food supply healthy. The Chinese government recently cracked down, closing almost 5,000 food-producing businesses and arresting 2,000 people — but China experts say a needlessly complex bureaucracy and ferocious determination to turn a profit mean the contamination will keep coming. (On forums where expats chat, Westerners living in China wonder whether there is anything safe to eat.) (Update: Commenters at the China Law Blog, many of them apparently resident in China, reflect the same anxiety.)

It’s tempting to view these Chinese food scandals as interesting but remote, the learning curve of a society that pushes unfettered capitalism but never experienced the kind of progressive movement that led to food-safety reform in the United States. Except for one small detail: Chinese products don’t stay in China. They are traded around the world, and increasingly they are sold here.

The permeability of the US marketplace to Chinese goods of uncertain origin should have been clear in 2007, when melamine contamination was found not only in milk sold in China but in pet food sold in the U.S. (Up to 4,000 pets are believed to have died.)

But a report published in June by the Food and Drug Administration makes it clear that imports from China are increasing in the US — and that the FDA is underfunded and under-equipped to deal with it. The unusual “special report,” called Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality, said imports include:

— 10-15 percent of all food eaten in US households

— 60 percent of fruits and vegetables

— 80 percent of seafood

— 50 percent of medical devices

— 80 percent of the active pharmaceutical ingredients in medications.

China is the major player in that market growth, with India a close second:

Import lines from emerging markets, including Mexico, India, China, and Thailand, increased faster between 2002 and 2009 than lines from developed markets, and this disparity is likely to continue. China and India are each expected to see a more than 400% increase in their product exports between now and 2020, with China accounting for nearly 20% of all global product exports by that time… China and India are each expected to see 9% annual growth in food exports between 2010 and 2020.

And with surprising frankness, the FDA admitted that it cannot keep up:

FDA does not — nor will it — have the resources to adequately keep pace with the pressures of globalization. In 2008 the Government Accountability Office recommended that FDA increase inspections of foreign drug establishments and improve information it receives to manage overseas inspections. But at current rates, it would take an estimated nine years for FDA to inspect every high- priority pharmaceutical facility just once. The same holds for food products. [The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act] directs the agency to inspect at least 600 foreign food facilities within the next year and double those inspections every year for the next five. While the goal may be attainable in the first year, it would be impossible for FDA to complete 19,200 foreign food inspections in year six without a substantial increase in resources or a complete overhaul in the way it operates.

(Just to be clear, the FDA is not getting “a substantial increase in resources.” As Food Safety News reported after the budget deal was struck, the agency initially faced deep cuts and now at best will have flat funding.)

The FDA isn’t alone in thinking it isn’t up to the job of policing imported food. The Office of the Inspector General in its parent department, Health and Human Services, said in June that the agency is performing erratically in policing recalls of imported foods. In April, the Government Accountability Office said that, even given its limited resources, the FDA needs to do a better job policing imported seafood specifically.

China, the GAO report said,is the largest single supplier of seafood imported to the US. But in the past 6 years, the FDA has inspected 41 — 1.5 percent — of the 2,744 Chinese seafood processors selling to the U.S.

Maryn McKenna is a journalist for national magazines and the author of SUPERBUG and BEATING BACK THE DEVILFollow @marynmck on Twitter.

This post originally appeared Aug. 23, 2011, at Wired Science’s Superbug.

  • John

    SHAME ON YOU america and americans, for your continued ignorance and blindness to the reality all around you. We could save our economy and our lives by directly addressing these food safety issues.
    Charge a considerable fee to EVERY SINGLE company/grower/manufacturer/farmer who wants to import ANYTHING into this country. This fee would pay American inspectors and testing facilities for their work, employing many thousands of Americans, increasing the cost of imports(which would help our local producers), and contribute toward safer foods and products entering this country. Yes, consumers would be paying more for what they buy… but they would be able to afford it, because they would all be employed. Also, the items they buy would be safe and considerably less likely to horrificly poison them.

  • The fact that FDA can’t handle all those imports reinforces the need to support industry employees who care about public health and are willing to expose problems despite company pressure to keep quiet. Interestingly enough, China launched plans recently for a new reward program to give food safety whistleblowers a financial incentive to raise concerns before they lead to illness and death. The U.S. doesn’t even have such a program, though we have to take it with a grain of salt, given China’s history of hostility against whistleblowers. Details on China’s program here:

  • This article highlights both the pitfalls of no regulations as China didn’t enact food safety laws until 2 years ago. It also highlights a big motivator……greed.
    So, to those that say we have too much regulation in ANY aspect of the food industry in the USA I point you to China. To those that say that people or industry can self regulate I point you to China and it’s example of greed.
    It’s not just China’s food industry that suffers the ill effects of greed it’s ours. As I always say, “where money talks, safety walks”.

  • doc raymond

    The reader may infer the obvious, but just in case not:
    Maryn makes a point about increasing food imports from China and the lack of FDA inspection. Left out is the fact that meat and poultry can only be exported to the US by 33 approved countries with equivalent food safety systems, and all imports must pass thru one of 140 import houses and are reinspected by USDA inspectors and 5% are tested for pathogens and residues. It can be done. And most of those vegetables and fruits are coming up from the South of us, not China. Under the guise of food safety, congress in 2008 passed a law that said Catfish must fall under USDA inspection, but ignored all other fish and seafood. Brilliant move that will create WTO action.

  • food-daddy

    If you are worried about China now, take a look at this. The expansion of the Panama Canal reduces food miles to what Wal-Mart may consider local. Big screen TV’s move over. Chinese Tur-duck-in-on-a-stick is coming to your table in 2014.