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“Made in China”—The Ultimate Warning Label

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From exploding cell phone batteries, bacteria–ridden tofu, and catfish loaded to the gills with banned antibiotics, virtually nothing coming out of today’s China should be considered safe. This chapter shows you just why this is so, just what kind of products you should fear most, and why, as Senator Dick Durbin has aptly noted, “Made in China” has become a code red “warning label” that no sensible consumer should ignore.
This chapter is from the book
  • A mother said Thursday she knew something was terribly wrong when her 20–month–old son began to stumble and started vomiting. He had just ingested Aqua Dots, a popular toy that contains a chemical that turns into a powerful “date rape” drug when eaten. It was the latest Chinese–made toy pulled from shelves in North America.
  • MSNBC.com

“Beware of cheap Chinese goods that can kill you.” If that little Confucian warning doesn’t appear in your next fortune cookie, it should. As Upton Sinclair spins in his grave, China is flooding the world with a staggering array of cancerous, contaminated, and defective products.

No doubt you have already heard about some of the worst cases. In the toxic metals category alone, we’ve seen baby cribs, vinyl bibs, and children’s gardening gloves lined with lead; toy bears, drums, and trains coated with lead paint; lead snaps on Chinese–made overalls and shirts for babies and toddlers; and a complete line of Barbie doll accessories decked out in “designer lead.”

You have also likely heard about the cough syrup and toothpaste laced with antifreeze that killed hundreds of people; the pajamas soaked in so much formaldehyde they make your skin crawl; the cat and dog treats spiked with deadly melamine that prematurely put tens of thousands of Garfields and man’s best friends into pet cemeteries; and, as the hands–down winner of the most bizarre form of Chinese product torture, “Aqua Dots”—the toy beads cum date rape drug featured in the excerpt opening this chapter.

Sensational though these headline grabbers may be, they are but the tip of a very dangerous iceberg. From exploding cell phone batteries, bacteria–ridden tofu, and catfish loaded to the gills with banned antibiotics to cheap Chinese cars so dangerous they make crash dummies run for cover, virtually nothing coming out of today’s China should be considered safe. This chapter shows you just why this is so, just what kind of products you should fear most, and why, as Senator Dick Durbin has aptly noted, “Made in China” has become a code red “warning label” that no sensible consumer should ignore.

A Poisoned Food Chain

  • You’ve got to be nuts to eat Chinese food.
  • —Ron Vara

Most people quite rightly think of China as a manufacturing powerhouse and the world’s “factory floor.” Increasingly, China is also becoming the world’s fish farm, fruit orchard, and vegetable garden.

Today, China is the third largest exporter of food to the United States. China accounts for more than 50% of the garlic, 45% of the apple juice, roughly 20% of the honey, and about 15% of the seafood imported into the United States. Incredibly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tests less than 1% of all food imports into the U.S. This is in sharp contrast to Japan, which tests fully 10%. As noted in USA Today, this understaffing of the FDA “signals a large green light for produce and seafood to enter the U.S. market without having to sweat inspections.”

Something So Very Fishy

  • Perched above the banks of the catfish farm he owns is Zhu Zhiqiu’s secret weapon for breeding healthy fish: the medicine shed. Inside are iodine bottles, vitamin packets, and Chinese herbal concoctions that he claims substitute for antibiotics. Zhu’s fish farm, in a village on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, sends about 2.5 million catfish fillets each year to United States through an importer in Virginia. Despite his best efforts—he has dozens of employees clearing trash from the water each day, and the fish are fed sacks of fishmeal more expensive than rice—Zhu’s fish sometimes get sick. Then he brings out the drugs.
  • Washington Post

China is the leading exporter of catfish, eel, and tilapia to the United States and the second biggest shrimp supplier. China is also the world’s leading exporter of toxic seafood.

The problem of toxic fish begins with the observation that Chinese fish farmers, like Mr. Zhu in the preceding excerpt, inevitably are forced to rely on a dizzying array of banned antibiotics, herbal concoctions, and illegal substances to get their fish to market. The underlying problem, discussed extensively in Chapter 7, “The Damnable Dam and Water Wars—Nary a (Clean) Drop to Drink,” is that the waterways of China are some of the most severely polluted in the world and therefore some of the least habitable for fish. In such a polluted environment, farm–bred fish are particularly vulnerable to the big four pathogens: viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites.

One common way China’s fish farmers cope with two of these pathogens—fungi and external parasites—is to douse the waters of their farms with a powder known as malachite green. This strong green dye is a dangerous carcinogen that has been officially banned in China. However, that ban hasn’t stopped many of China’s fish farmers from using it.

A second common way China’s fish farmers keep their fish from dying is to flood the waters with a variety of banned antimicrobials and antibiotics. The antimicrobials are known carcinogens that can kill you directly. In contrast, the banned antibiotics can kill or harm you indirectly. The reason is a subtle one: When you eat fish laced with antibiotics, you can build up a resistance to these drugs. Then, if you get sick and actually need the antibiotics to fight the infection, the antibiotics simply won’t work. In addition, the bacteria can evolve into “superbugs” highly resistant to the antibiotics.

In addition to having to worry about all manner of toxins creeping into Chinese fish, consumers around the world have to contend with China’s “fish counterfeiters.” For example, one common ploy used by unscrupulous Chinese exporters is to sell the dangerous puffer fish disguised as the delectable monkfish. The problem here is that puffer fish contain tetrodotoxin. This is a potent neurotoxin for which there is no known antidote; it produces paralysis of the diaphragm and often death due to respiratory failure.

Midnight in China’s Fruit and Vegetable Gardens of Evil

  • For nearly two decades, Lai Mandai regularly ate and sold beans, cabbage, and watermelons grown on a plot of land a short walk from a lead smelting plant in her village. Like dozens of other villagers who ate locally grown food, Ms. Lai, 39 years old, developed health problems. “When I did work, planting vegetables or cleaning the floor, I felt so tired and my fingers felt numb,” Ms.Lai says. Ms. Lai, along with 57 other villagers, was eventually diagnosed with high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal that can cause kidney disease and softening of the bones.
  • Wall Street Journal

China grows half of the world’s vegetables and almost 20% of its fruit. China’s people consume most of its produce, but an increasing share is being exported to the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world. As with China’s toxic fish exports, this is not an altogether welcome development.

One of the biggest problems with eating Chinese fruit and vegetables is the rising risk of ingesting one of any number of highly toxic heavy metals, including mercury, lead, and the cadmium that felled Ms. Lai in the preceding excerpt. In fact, according to China’s own Ministry of Land and Resources, more than 10% of China’s arable land has already been contaminated by heavy metal detritus from China’s factories, mines, smelters, and power plants.

A second major health issue is the exceedingly high levels of pesticide residues often found in Chinese produce. As documented in the Journal of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, the underlying problem is the tendency for China’s farmers to overuse pesticides in an effort to boost their meager crop yields. As a result, the FDA has had to reject Chinese agricultural products ranging from ginseng and frozen red raspberry crumble to mushrooms.

Beyond the problem of food contamination from banned antibiotics, heavy metals, and pesticides, issues with bacteria and spoilage also arise because of China’s lack of an adequate “cold chain.” Any country’s cold chain begins with refrigerators to cool fruit and vegetables upon harvest. The cold chain extends to refrigerated trucks or rail cars in which the produce can be transported. Still another set of refrigerators and freezers are necessary to store the produce in warehouses before it is shipped to market. On all three counts, China is woefully deficit.

For example, China has only about 30,000 cold storage trucks compared to almost 300,000 in the United States, and its cold storage capacity tops out at a meager 250 million cubic feet. However, according to a study conducted by the consulting firm A.T. Kearney, over the next 10 years, China is going to need about 365,000 refrigerated trucks and 5 billion cubic feet of cold storage.

The kinds of contamination problems that arise from the lack of an adequate cold chain are even worse for meat and poultry, as indicated by this passage from the Wall Street Journal:

  • It’s a scene that James Rice, head of the China operations of Tyson Foods Inc., has seen numerous times in his three years with the poultry giant there: tons of featherless, frozen chickens loaded on the backs of flatbed trucks under thick blankets in the summer heat, awaiting a long–haul journey across China. “It’s my Achilles heel,” says Mr. Rice. He says the lack of everything from temperature–controlled trucks and warehouses to a shortage of general refrigeration know–how limits Tyson to a handful of major cities in China.
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