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China's grip on key food additive

Vitamin C prices have spiked this year. China controls 80 percent of the market.

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A sharp rise in the international price of vitamin C is focusing fresh attention on the risks of the world's growing dependence on China for essential food supplies and additives.

China, which exports more than 80 percent of the world's ascorbic acid – also known as vitamin C and a key food preservative – appears to have cut production over the past several months, pushing prices up by more than 200 percent to a four-year high.

Customers have scrambled for supplies of the additive, found in thousands of processed foods from fruit drinks to organic hamburger rolls, from applesauce to granola.

The production cutback follows a Chinese government drive to enforce pollution limits on chemical and pharmaceutical companies, sources in the vitamin industry say. The four biggest Chinese vitamin C producers are also facing a price-fixing suit in a New York court. Since January, prices have risen from $3.40 a kilo to $11 a kilo, according to industry sources.

The reduction in world supply comes in the wake of a series of scandals surrounding Chinese food and drug exports, some of which have been found to be tainted by poisonous chemicals. The Chinese have charged that US exports are tainted and have banned some of them as well. In the wake of the scandals, President Bush on Wednesday appointed an imports safety panel that will report to him in 60 days.

Though there appears to be no reason to believe that Chinese vitamin C is contaminated, the sudden shortage highlights another cause for concern over America's growing reliance on Chinese food imports. Only one Western company, DSM of the Netherlands, still makes ascorbic acid, concentrating production in Scotland since shutting down its US plant two years ago. Chinese firms have driven all other competitors out of business.

"They have virtually captured the lot, unbeknown to most people," says Leo Hepner, a London-based management consultant to the food and pharmaceutical industry. "It puts us in a very difficult situation if, say, they stopped making it."

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