Image: Chinese inspectors
Elizabeth Dalziel  /  AP
Chinese inspectors look at food products at the food safety inspection center of the Beijing entry-exit inspection and quarantine bureau in China. The country has shut down three companies tied to tainted imports that have killed dozens in Panama and triggered a major pet-food recall.
updated 7/20/2007 5:53:28 PM ET 2007-07-20T21:53:28

Ahead of high-level visits by U.S. and European officials, China moved to sharpen its product safety image Friday, shutting down a chemical plant linked to dozens of deaths in Panama from tainted medicine and closing two companies tied to pet deaths in North America.

The measures come as Beijing fights to reassure global customers that it takes food and drug safety seriously amid concerns over chemicals and toxins that have been found in its products.

The closures come months after links between the companies’ products and the deaths became known, but only days before the European Union and U.S. visits.

EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva arrives next week and has said she will press China to be much more vigilant about product safety. On July 31, a five-day meeting between officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and China’s food safety agency begins in Beijing. Chinese officials have said the sides will discuss setting up a collaborative food safety mechanism.

Two of the companies that had their licenses revoked and offices shut by China’s product safety watchdog were the Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd. and Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co. Ltd.

Products from both were implicated in the deaths of dozens of pets in North America. Reports of the deaths and links to China emerged in March.

The third company closed was the Taixing Glycerin Factory, which has been accused of selling what it called industrial “TD glycerin,” a mix of 15 percent diethylene glycol and other substances. The diethylene glycol, a thickening agent found in antifreeze, was passed off as harmless glycerin, a more expensive sweetener commonly used in drugs.

It eventually ended up in Panamanian cough syrup and other medicines that killed at least 94 people. The deaths were first reported last October, with the link to China emerging in early May.

Chinese quality officials have said “TD glycerin” is a misleading label because it could be mistaken for glycerin. But they also said the bulk of the blame lies with Panamanian merchants they accused of fraudulently mislabeling the “TD glycerin” as medical glycerin.

Definitive action
While the government has announced the detention of an unspecified number of managers from Xuzhou Anying and Binzhou Futian, Friday’s action was the most definitive yet against the manufacturers linked to melamine-tainted wheat gluten blamed for the pet deaths.

The General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine also said police were investigating the two companies, but did not elaborate.

Following the pet food deaths, U.S. authorities have turned away or recalled toxic fish, juice containing unsafe color additives and popular toy trains decorated with lead paint. Chinese-made toothpaste containing diethylene glycol has also been rejected or recalled in North and South America, Asia and Europe.

Xuzhou Anying, located in Jiangsu province, “unlawfully added melamine in some of its products which could not meet the protein content requirement set in the contracts,” the quality administration said. “This behavior of adulteration severely violated the feed quality and safety standards.”

Binzhou Futian, headquartered in neighboring Shandong province, “added melamine in some of its products which could not meet the protein content requirement ... constituting severe adulteration,” the statement said.

Melamine, used in plastics, fertilizers and flame retardants, has no nutritional value but is high in nitrogen, making products to which it is added appear to be higher in protein — a way to cut costs for the manufacturer.

‘Too little, too late’
Bates Gill, a China specialist at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Friday’s actions struck him as “too little, too late.”

“This problem of poor quality and lack of oversight has been around for a decade or more,” he said. “What’s different this time is how the shoddiness of their factories has become apparent to the world.”

Gill said the Chinese response to similar problems in the past has been to “undertake a couple of high-level actions and then it’s back to normal within days or weeks.”

The problem will persist, he said, because the central government doesn’t have sufficient capabilities to monitor local governments, which are primarily responsible for food safety controls.

Yang Dali, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore and author of a paper on the politics of food safety in China, said “the central government is responding to the international outcry and international pressure.”

But, he said, “it’s not as harsh a punishment as it sounds” because the companies are likely to have lost most of their business anyway because of the safety scandal.

Tensions were triggered last month after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it would seize Chinese catfish, basa and dace, as well as shrimp and eel, after repeated testing turned up contamination with drugs that have not been approved in the United States for use in farmed seafood.

Li Changjiang, head of the product safety watchdog, said a Chinese investigation has found some fish farms “did use banned substances in those exports” and were not officially registered, allowing them to slip through without detection.

However, he said the U.S. has an import system that relies on random tests and did not require quarantine certificates for customs clearance.

“We will resolutely close down these small food manufactures ... who are engaged in producing substandard or fake or shoddy food and they will not be allowed to restart their business,” Li said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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