- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 10, 2012

BEIJING — China’s scandal-plagued food and drug agency defended itself Tuesday against media reports claiming it covered up problems with excessive lead in domestic supplies of spirulina, a popular algae-based health supplement.

One state media report said the State Food and Drug Administration’s allegedly conflicting statements about the Chinese spirulina industry triggered an investigation into whether the agency was taking bribes.

The State Food and Drug Administration didn’t directly rebut or repeat the corruption allegation, but defended its inspections of the supplement, taken as pill or powder.

A spokesman for the Beijing Procuratorate said Tuesday that he was unaware of any such investigation but would look into it. Like many other Chinese bureaucrats, he would give only his surname, Yang.

The State Food and Drug Administration has struggled to recover its reputation since a former commissioner was executed in 2007 for taking bribes.

A string of food and drug safety problems since then, such as shoddy medicine and melamine-tainted milk formula that killed six babies in 2008, further eroded public trust in the regulators overseeing China’s food and drug safety.

The agency said it stands by the March 30 results of an inspection of more than a dozen spirulina brands that found only one containing excessive lead and arsenic. The problem brand was Conthealthy sold by the Xingfulai Pharmaceutical Group in Fujian province.

However, an internal State Food and Drug Administration document from February that was first reported last month by the official Xinhua News Agency suggested that contamination of Chinese spirulina was widespread and listed 13 brands suspected of having excessive lead, arsenic or mercury.

That internal report prompted Xinhua to order independent tests of spirulina and the news agency reported last month that six out of eight store-bought samples had excessive levels of lead, including one that exceeded national limits by 820 percent.

The Economic Information Daily, a Xinhua paper, reported Monday that the State Food and Drug Administration’s apparently conflicting reports had triggered a corruption investigation by Beijing prosecutors. It said Economic Information Daily reporters had provided investigators information and evidence from their reporting.

The State Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday that its internal and public statements weren’t conflicting.

It said the internal document referred to unconfirmed suspicions while the March 30 was based on lab tests. It also said algae has higher allowable lead levels than other food products.

Lead damages the nervous system and is particularly dangerous for children and fetuses. Small or short-term exposure can be treated, but high levels can cause birth defects, brain damage and other problems.