The Chinese government yesterday launched a counter-offensive on product quality controls, threatening a ban on imports of US pork and calling for a worldwide drive to improve health and safety standards. This is because US pork products may contain ractopamine, a growth hormone that is banned in China but not in the US.
Chinese officials are to send two separate delegations to the US to discuss mounting concerns about safety controls following a series of scares over food, drugs and toys exported from the country. The scandals culminated this week in the US company Mattel’s decision to recall 18 million toys made in China and sold worldwide following warnings they may contain faulty magnets on which children could choke.
The first of the Chinese delegations will arrive in Washington this month to meet the US Food and Drug Administration, Zhao Baoqing, a spokesman for the country’s American embassy said, to be followed by a second round of talks in September with the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
However, Mr Zhao warned the Chinese government would not accept suggestions that lower production standards in Asia are the only problem area that such talks should cover. “I would like to say that the question of food safety and quality is a question for all the countries in the world,” he said. “It is not just a question for individual countries.”
Chinese officials are desperate to prevent a global backlash against exports from the country and have already introduced a series of measures designed to reassure trade partners.
In particular, the Chinese exports department has begun random testing of goods from industries including food and electronics, and also begun relaxing restrictions on journalists seeking to report on the manufacturing sector.
Last month, the former head of the Chinese food and drug safety agency was executed following a corruption scandal and officials have also launched a campaign urging manufacturers to more closely scrutinise the activities of sub-contractors.
Nevertheless, the scandals have encouraged some Western politicians to step up calls for much tighter controls on imports from China.
Christopher Dodd, the Democrat senator from Connecticut, who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination, even called for a ban on Chinese imports yesterday. “Parents should be confident that the toys and food they give their children have been inspected and are safe,” he said. “I am calling on the President to use his authority to immediately suspend all imports of toys and food from China.”
Meglena Juneva, the European Union’s Consumer Protection Commissioner, also called for greater vigilance on export standards. The EU already has a system through which each member state is required to notify the Commission of product recalls so that other countries can consider whether to follow suit. The Commission also has powers to ban products sourced from countries or firms implicated in several scandals.
However, widescale bans on imports from China would almost certainly provoke a trade war with the West, with serious consequences for both sides. Trade between China and the US alone is expected to be worth $500bn (£252bn) a year by 2010.
China has already warned it is considering a ban on pork imports from America, on the grounds that some products may contain ractopamine, a growth hormone that is banned in China but not in the US. A similar ban could be imposed on chicken feet and other agricultural produce.
The pork sector could be the first flashpoint in escalating trade disputes between China and the West. China’s concerns about US hormone treatments are mirrored by increasing anxiety among Western producers about an outbreak of the potentially fatal blue ear disease in Asia. Though Chinese officials say the outbreak is under control, the authorities have had to cull tens of thousands of pigs.
By David Prosser, Deputy Business Editor, The Independent UK, 17 August 2007