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China's grip on key food additive

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Even some nutrition experts are surprised to learn that most of the world's vitamin C is produced in China. "We may need to figure out how it can be made closer to home," says Mara Vitolins, director of public health at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Our own food supply is sort of vulnerable."

Ascorbic acid export figures released by the Chinese Customs Administration show that exports dropped by 24 percent in May 2007 from the month before, from 6,537 tons in April to 4,857 tons. That was 14 percent below the monthly average for the first six months of 2006.

Production has fallen, say manufacturers, because they are now being forced to abide by environmental standards that were applied only sporadically before.

"Some vitamin C producers have stopped production" to limit the waste water emitted, explains Kong Tai, former CEO and now board member of Jiangshan Pharmaceutical, one of the four big producers. "In some areas, the authorities limit the total amount of annual pollutant emission, so if you have reached that ceiling you cannot go on producing."

"The government has gone from turning a blind eye to complete panic and has blitzed the largest companies they can find and told them to do something quickly," adds David Townsend, the representative in China of DSM, which manufactures vitamins other than vitamin C in China.

"The vitamin C companies have been caught up in this," he adds.

The Chinese may also have cost pressures. One of the base materials for ascorbic acid is corn-based. The US cash price of corn is up 44 percent this year, a result of increased use for ethanol. Corn starch is used to make a form of glucose, some of which China imports to make vitamin C. China imports some of this base material. "The Chinese are not insulated from it [the price rise]," says Mr. Hepner.

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