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FDA China branch to monitor food

Imports arrive in a box labeled Made in China

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Just like the credit crisis, the Food and Drug Administration is going global. It's got plans to open offices all over the world -- India, Latin America, Europe. But overseas shop No. 1 opened today in Beijing, ground zero in the tainted food scares of the past couple years.

Marketplace's Scott Tong reports.


Scott Tong: FDA officials said their new China branch office helps them to "address the challenges" of globalization. Certainly your local supermarket has gone global: Seafood, spices, and processed foods all bear a China footprint, as do many vitamins and drugs. So moving inspectors closer to the source makes sense to Jim Rice. He runs the China office for Tyson Foods.

Jim Rice: If the wrong product is on the shelf of a grocery store, it's almost too late. So you want to go further up the process, and that's exactly what the FDA is doing. So this is the right place to be.

And perhaps the right time, as China's melamine scandal widens. Last week, U.S. ports started detaining every Chinese food item with milk inside. The melamine is showing up in dairy items and a host of protein food sources across China. So what might be next?

Richard Brubaker: You could really look at anything in a box.

Richard Brubaker is a Shanghai logistics consultant.

Brubaker: When you have chemicals that are used as preservatives, stabilizers; you have starches, starch replacements, any of these powders can be perverted.

Brubaker says China's food suppliers are so fragmented it's impossible to check every one. Meanwhile, more and more of those Chinese ingredients turn up at your dinner table and in your medicine cabinet. China provides about half the innards of herbal supplements and many active ingredients in prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

The FDA staffers in China hope to beef up local safety inspections, and they want to coordinate with local regulators. But they may find pushback when they ask for data on safety scandals. That's according to Brian Yu of the research firm JL McGregor.

Brian Yu: This one will be hard for the new FDA office to access, because these kinds of information are very politically sensitive information.

The FDA will keep checking foreign goods at U.S. ports. In fact, the agency reported today it continues to find melamine in Chinese-made food products.

In Shanghai, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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