- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Food and Drug Administration yesterday announced that it is stopping all imports of toothpaste from China to test it for a deadly chemical found in Chinese toothpaste sold in other countries.

FDA spokesman Douglas Arbesfeld cited recent reports that toothpaste containing diethylene glycol a poison used in antifreeze and brake fluid had been exported from China to the Dominican Republic, Panama and Australia.

The U.S. imported about $3.3 million worth of toothpaste from China last year, and while authorities have no evidence that tainted toothpaste has made its way into the United States, Mr. Arbesfeld said the testing is a “precautionary measure.”

Food products from China have come under intense scrutiny around the world after a spate of safety breaches involving toxins in products from pet food to toothpaste, which prompted wide recalls and government investigations.

Concerns about the safety of Chinese food exports developed after dogs and cats died from pet food contaminated with the chemical melamine. The poisoning was traced to food additives from China that later were found in feed for U.S. hogs, fish and chickens. Alabama and Mississippi have banned imports of Chinese catfish because of high levels of antibiotics.

Hong Chang Corp. of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., said Wednesday it was recalling monkfish from China that may actually be puffer fish containing the toxin tetrodotoxin.

Consumption of foods containing tetrodotoxin can cause serious illness or death, and it cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing, the company said.

The problem was discovered after two persons in the Chicago area became sick after consuming soup made with the “monkfish.” FDA analysis of the fish confirmed the presence of life-threatening levels of tetrodotoxin.

The company said that 282 22-pound boxes of monkfish were distributed to Illinois, California and Hawaii wholesalers beginning in September. The product was sold in stores and restaurants in these regions.

U.S. officials yesterday said they have asked China to take steps to increase safety of its food exports, including requiring the registration of Chinese companies that plan to export food and feed products to the United States, a ban on exports of products from unregistered companies, and multiple-entry visas and other clearances so U.S. officials can conduct inspections in China.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group concerned with food safety and other issues, described the steps as “pretty revolutionary for FDA” but said she did not see any “teeth” in the announcement.

It was not clear what would happen if there are still problems with Chinese imports even with this system in place, Ms. DeWaal said.

In addition, she said, if these steps prove to be effective, the FDA should implement them in other countries, such as Vietnam and India, that are shipping seafood and other food products to the United States.

Chris Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute, described the FDA announcement as “a good step for the U.S. to get a better handle on what’s going on in China” but noted that “this is only a request.”

“Chinese delegates will have to take these requests back to China and then respond to us. In the end, I’m concerned these requests are only going to be weakened,” he said.

Meanwhile, China sought to assure other countries yesterday that its food products are safe.

Fears have become so great that China’s Agriculture Ministry was forced to dismiss a rumor that bananas grown on the southern island province of Hainan might contain a virus similar to SARS.

“It is purely a rumor, and it is impossible for bananas to contain SARS-like virus,” the ministry said on its Web site.

China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine yesterday sought to explain to U.S. regulators its policy on antibiotics in catfish. Alabama and Mississippi have banned imports of the fish, citing high levels of fluoroquinolones.

The antibiotic was not banned in China, Japan or the European Union, Xinhua news agency reported, adding that although the states had a “zero level” standard, concentrations did not exceed FDA levels.

“The U.S. side should abide by the WTO principle of minimizing the impact of health issues on trade and not take restrictive measures against all imported products of this kind,” the Chinese agency said.

cThis article was based in part on wire service reports.

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