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Food safety: 'Made in China' attracts the long arm of the FDA

With only two inspectors in China, the FDA has little food-safety enforcement power but definite influence on food made in China for import to the US.

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FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg (c.) visited the Shanghai Institute for Food and Drug Control in August 2010. With only two inspectors in China, the FDA has little food-safety enforcement power but definite influence on food made in China for import to the US.

AP

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Food producers are rarely thrilled to hear that US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors have scheduled them for a visit. But Zhang Botao says that after a three-year wait there is nothing he would rather hear.

Mr. Zhang runs a catfish processing plant here in southeastern China, where many peasants have diversified away from traditional rice paddies and cotton fields to dig fishponds. But Zhang and his fish farming partners have gotten caught up in a food-safety scandal that has nearly ruined their business. And only the FDA can save them.

In a cool, brightly lit, white-tiled room smelling as much of disinfectant as of fish, platoons of young women covered head to toe in protective clothing wield knives with frightening speed and precision, reducing flat-headed catfish to plump fillets in a matter of seconds.

In Pictures: The foreign and domestic food chain

But most of the stainless steel workstations are empty. So many fish farmers have gone out of business since the FDA slapped restrictions on Chinese catfish exports three years ago that Sun Gem Foodstuffs, Zhang's company, finds it hard to obtain enough product, says deputy manager Sun Shucai.

One of the Chinese food-safety scandals in 2007 involved the discovery of potentially carcinogenic residues of colorants and antibiotics in catfish headed for the US market. The FDA reduced the acceptable levels of the banned chemicals from five parts per billion to one part per billion, and made previously random inspections mandatory for every batch of Chinese catfish coming off a boat in American ports.

Those inspections had to be paid for. So did the extra time the fish spent in cold storage (as much as six months) while awaiting inspection. Sun Gem had to pay those costs, which came to about 10 percent of the value of each shipment – about equal to the company's profit margin.

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