Image: Boxes of toothpaste
Dominican Republic Custom and Bo via EPA  /  EPA
A member of the Customs Direction Office of the Dominican Republic shows journalists boxes containing thousands of tubes of toothpaste seized during a raid in Santo Domingo on May 22.
msnbc.com news services
updated 5/24/2007 9:40:16 AM ET 2007-05-24T13:40:16

U.S. health officials are beginning to check all shipments of toothpaste coming from China, following reports of tainted products in other countries, a government spokesman said on Wednesday.

The Food and Drug Administration has no evidence that contaminated toothpaste has made its way into the United States but is taking the step as a precaution, agency spokesman Doug Arbesfeld said.

China — the second-largest exporter of toothpaste to the United States behind Canada, according to the FDA — has been at the forefront of growing concerns about its standards as well as the U.S. government’s ability to monitor foods and other products.

The FDA’s action comes after the lethal chemical diethylene glycol was found in toothpaste sold in the Dominican Republic and Panama.

It follows a wave of concern over pet food from China containing another toxic chemical, melamine, thought to have sickened thousands of U.S. cats and dogs and made its way into livestock feed.

“We are going to be sampling and testing all shipments of toothpaste that come from China,” Arbesfeld said. “We’re doing this as a precautionary measure. We have no evidence that toothpaste containing diethylene glycol has entered the country.”

Antifreeze chemical in toothpaste
China on Wednesday said it was investigating reports that the contaminated toothpaste had been exported to Central America.

The announcement came the same day a state-run newspaper issued an unusually critical editorial berating the country’s food safety regulators for their dithering response to the earlier scandal over pet food ingredients.

“Our quality watchdogs’ contradictory statements regarding responsibility for the sensational pet food scandal was a shameful lack of professionalism,” the China Daily said. “They first denied, then soon admitted that the contaminated pet food originated in China.”

Tests on product pulled from shelves in Panama showed they contained high levels of diethylene glycol, a chemical commonly used in antifreeze and brake fluid. Investigators in that country said two toothpaste brands were imported illegally from China through a free-trade zone.

Tainted toothpaste has also been reported in Australia, Arbesfeld said.

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On Monday, authorities in the Dominican Republic said they had removed 10,000 tubes of the Chinese toothpaste brands “Excel” and “Mr. Cool” from shelves after learning they contained the engine coolant diethylene glycol. Panama also removed the Chinese toothpaste brands from stores last week, but said the level of diethylene glycol did not appear to be dangerous.

Pet food ingredients from China tainted with the mildly toxic chemical melamine were blamed in the deaths of dogs and cats in North America earlier this year, prompting a massive pet food recall and, eventually, an investigation in China.

It was not immediately clear which brands of toothpaste sold in the United States are made in China.

A representative of Johnson & Johnson’s McNeil-PPC Inc., which makes Rembrandt toothpaste, could not be immediately reached.

A spokeswoman for Colgate-Palmolive, maker of Colgate toothpaste, said the company did not import toothpaste into the U.S. from China.

A Procter & Gamble spokeswoman said Crest brand toothpaste was American-made.

Lori Lukus, a spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s consumer unit, said the company’s Aquafresh product was made in the U.S.

Low-cost substitute
Wednesday’s statement from China didn’t say what companies were being checked into, although the general manager of a company based in Jiangsu — Danyang Chengshi Household Chemical Co. — said Tuesday he was being questioned by investigators.

Chen Yaozu said he had exported toothpaste containing small amounts of diethylene glycol to Panama — later shipped to the Dominican Republic — but said that was permitted under Chinese rules and did not pose a direct health risk. Diethylene glycol is primarily used to keep toothpaste moist.

The chemical is a thickening agent often used as a low-cost substitute for glycerin. It was blamed for the deaths of at least 51 people in Panama last year after it was mixed into cough syrup, another case with allegations involving China.

Chen’s claim echoed those of Chinese chemical companies and animal feed makers who said adding melamine was safe in controlled amounts. The chemical contains no nutrition but is rich in nitrogen, making the feed appear to have a higher protein content.

Arbesfeld said the FDA was beginning its work immediately and would continue for 90 days, although that could be extended, he added.

Arbesfeld added the agency had been in contact with health officials in the other affected countries as well as China.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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