andrew schneider investigates

June 8, 2009

Too many Chinese food producers add poisons to food to increase profits. Will new food safety law end the adulteration?

Many food exports from China may be dangerous, but some of the tricks used to fool Chinese shoppers are even more treacherous.

Everyone knows about the about the tens of thousands of Chinese infants struck down but kidney-destroying melamine in their milk and the 60,000 dogs and cats worldwide who died after eating it in the pet food.  Here are some other examples to consider:

Stinky tofu (yes, a real name) is a very popular street food throughout many Asian countries. Its aroma, which can bring the weak to their knees, comes from lengthy and thus costly fermentation.  Chinese food authorities found that some tofu producers created the reeking odor with rancid water and sewage. The desirable dark color came from ten illegal chemical dyes.

Chicken and duck farmers added Sudan Red Dye IV to the feed used in their poultry operations. The dye, a cancer-causing agent banned in food in many countries, makes the yolks a vivid bright reddish orange, and is sought after as a special and costly treat.

Some of the Chinese verdors at the IFT expo.  (c) a. schneider

Some of the Chinese verdors at the IFT expo. (c) a. schneider

Another egg fraud centers on another foul-smelling but very expensive and coveted traditional delicacy called a 1000-year-old egg. They’re really not preserved for ten centuries, but more like 100 to 150 days, according to a cook who gave me a bite of one in Vancouver. She said they normally are buried in a mixture of soil, lime, ashes, salt and green tea. Eventually, the egg white turns a gooey brown in color, and the yolk becomes dark grayish-green.  But people love it.

Money hungry phony egg producers eliminate the waiting time and just add lead oxide to alter the eggs. However, the chemical can destroy blood, the central nervous system, kidneys and other organs as well as causing birth defects and convulsions.

Other inventive food suppliers, instead of using a higher quality flour, have been caught adding alum to strengthen noodles and borax to preserve rice cakes, while fish farmers use the cancer and birth defect-causing antibiotic and antifungal agent Malachite green to control disease in the fish they sell. Of course, there are the beekeepers who taint their honey by using illegal antibiotics in their hives.

“Everyone of these food adulterations can be attributed to economic motivation,” said Dr. Yao-wen Huang, a professor of food science at the University of Georgia.  Most of the appealing examples mentioned above are his, and he and his colleague Hong Zhuang, a research food technologist for the USDA, were speaking at the International Institute of Food Technologists on food safety challenges in China.

The existing food safety system is not effective for a variety of reasons, including that 17 different bureaucracies work under the food and drug safety umbrella, and they each jealously guard their power,  Huang explained but added, that 8o percent of China’s food producers are small operations employing fewer than 10 workers and most pay little attention to the few safety requirement that exist.

Not only is enforcement convoluted, but also the blurred lines of responsibility and weak investigatory skills are further hampered by corruption, with some inspectors and their bosses take bribes in exchange for favors, the professor told me.

Prof. Yao-Wen Huang

Prof. Yao-Wen Huang

On June 1, China imposed a new food safety law.

Qin Zhenkui, president of the Chinese Academy of Inspection and Quarantine, believes the comprehensive requirements of the new law will make a difference.

Zhuang presented remarks from Zhenkui, which detailed the increased controls on food producers. These include inspection and licensing of all food manufacturers as well as rigorous requirements and previous state approval for all additives.

Food inspectors are not permitted to grant any exceptions to the rules, Zhuang explained.

This could eliminate, or at least reduce, the bribes for not seeing wrongdoing, but is that enough?

“The law should be an improvement,” Huang told me. “Everyone in the supply chain should be forced to get involved in ensuring the safety of the food — from the farmers, to the processors, the transporters, exporters and the importers themselves.

“’I didn’t know’ can no longer be an acceptable answer from anyone when it comes to food safety.”

This morning I stopped by nine exhibits of Chinese companies exporting food and asked representatives what they thought of their country’s two week-old food safety law.

Five sales agents told me that they’d never heard of it. The remaining four said the were forbidden to speak with the press, but one added, “China only sells the highest quality food. The problems in the press are fabricated.”

He wouldn’t give me his name.

May 29, 2009

As money becomes tighter, organic food becomes expendable for many.

I’ve been hearing from organic food producers, especially dairy farmers, who say that after years of soaring growth and markets for all they can produce, the reality of dealing with rough economic times is painfully hitting home.

(c) photo by a. schneider
(c) photo by a. schneider

They say that sales they could always count on, are falling off.

But many shopper are more carefully weighing the presumed quality of organics with the cost.

“I want the best for my children but I know I can get this for half the price at the chain groceries. Four or five dollars make a difference these days,” said a woman I chatted with yesterday at Whole Foods who was holding a head of organic lettuce in one hand and tomatoes in the other.

I’m going to hit some farmer’s markets this weekend to talk to some producers but as one farmer told me recently, he’d spent so much money bringing his farm up to organic standards that even a drop of five or 10 percent in his sales can close him down.

If you want to read more on this, Katie Zezma wrote a really well-researched piece in today’s New York Times.  Here’s a link to it.

May 21, 2009

The Internet will protect us from dangerous food? It’s a start, the White House says.

Two of President Obama’s cabinet officers today launched a government website as a step in improving the nation’s food safety system or, at least, giving the public a way to see whether the White House is making any progress with a problem that each year sickens tens of thousands and kills hundreds.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius, the head of HHS, were named by the president in March to run the White House Food Safety Working Group.hhs_seal_bl_thmb

Vilsack says the group will be an important tool for strengthening the food safety system, making it more accountable and accessible to the public and flexible enough to quickly resolve new food safety challenges that emerge.
USDA logo
“Families have enough to worry about. You shouldn’t have to wonder if the food you buy at the grocery store is safe,” said Health Secretary Sebelius.

Here is a link to the site which the government says will allow people to stay apprised of the group’s progress, learn about food safety tools and practices, and share their views on how to improve the food safety system.

When Obama announced the formation of the group, he told the agency head that it must “ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them.”

Enforcement has long been a problem in the food safety arena as shown by the massive, disjointed, recall of salmonella-tainted peanuts which took months to reach a meaningful level.

The White House group says it will use a public health approach that focuses resources according to risk, applies the best available science and fights, what may be the most difficult battle: cooperation between federal, state, local and international groups.

May 11, 2009

Honey laundering thrives despite fed crackdown on two operations smuggling tainted Chinese honey into the U.S. What’s on grocery shelves?

Federal invesHoney Chinatigators from various agencies in Seattle and Chicago  chased illegally labeled Chinese honey from the slums of the Philippines through dilapidated Thai warehouses and into ports up and down the west coast of the U.S.

The paper trail showed that some of the illegal honey was bought by a huge Midwest food distributor, which supplied major grocery chains, investigators said.

Last week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Chung Po Liu at his home in Bellevue, Wash., and Boa Zhong Zhang and Yong Xiang Yan at LAX as they arrived from China. All were charged with conspiracy for attempting to smuggle millions of dollars worth of honey – possibly contaminated with illegal antibiotics — into the United States.

The names of all three men and their companies came up in my five-month investigation into honey laundering, which was published by the Seattle PI in December.

Three of the many things I learned during that investigation were:
    This could never happen unless honey packers and sellers in the U.S. were involved.
    There is an enormous amount of contraband honey being smuggled into this country.
    Major, legitimate U.S. honey dealers are doing little or nothing to alert the Food and Drug Administration when they encounter illegal honey.

The 68-year-old Liu heads at least two Seattle-based companies, Rainier Cascade and Evergreen Produce.  Both companies import and sell honey to a long list of packers in the U.S. Liu works with Zhang, a 58-year-old Chinese national who is employed by Changge Jixiang Bee products Ltd., in Changge City, Henan Province.

Yan, according to investigators, is the president of the same Chinese honey manufacturing company which has 528 employees and has been in the honey business since 1985.
Yan was arrested for supplying tainted Chinese honey to Alfred L. Wolff, a major food distribution company in Chicago. Wolff supplies honey to packagers who sell it under a score of different brands across the U.S., investigators say.

A Customs and Border Patrol agent in a Tacoma, Wash. warehouse draws samples of Chinese honey that is being shipped to Chicago.  (c) Photot by a. schneider

A Customs and Border Patrol agent in a Tacoma, Wash. warehouse draws samples of Chinese honey that is being shipped to Chicago. (c) Photo by a. schneider

The criminal complaint, filed in Chicago, said the charges against Yan stem from an ongoing investigation (entering its third year) of the honey importing practices of Wolff, which is owned by Wolff & Olsen, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany.
An FDA investigator familiar with the Chicago company told me that invoices he’d seen from two manufacturers who bought from Wolff showed that most of the honey was being sold to major grocery chains, where it was labeled as produced in the United States or Canada.
He said he didn’t know whether the chains that bought the bogus honey were notified of its actual country of origin. He added that he doubted it.
It is almost impossible for those who import and sell honey not to know that it’s Chinese. The price of honey from China is usually only about a third of the cost of honey from Canada, South America or other credible suppliers.

For example, Ron Phipps, of CPNA International, Ltd., publishes a frequent international market report on honey. In a recent issue, he explained that in January, 1.2 million pounds of honey entered this country at 37-cents a pound. At the same time, Canadian honey was crossing the border at about $1.55 a pound.

Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of the Seattle office of ICE, said, “Those who misrepresent the origin of goods imported into the United States are motivated by greed and unfairly seek a financial advantage over those who play by the rules.’’

The issue goes beyond just the millions in import duties that were being stolen from U.S. coffers.  There are potential health risks involved because millions of China’s hives were destroyed by a virulent disease that swept through the country’s hives at tsunami speed. Beekeepers grabbed the strongest and cheapest antibiotics they could find – two from India and one from China – to fight back.

The most prevalent antibiotic was chloramphenicol. The drug is used to treat serious infections in humans, but is not approved by the FDA for use in food producing animals, including bees.

Honey containing chloramphenicol is deemed unsafe and adulterated within the meaning of the federal food and drug laws, Andrew Boutros, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago. said.

The presence of the antibiotic, even small amounts, is illegal.

During the PI investigation, I followed paper trails of illegally laundered shipments from China to countries throughout Asia and the South Pacific, where it was re-labeled to make it appear it was a product of those other countries. Then it was shipped on to the U.S.

Once those stories ran, people sent the PI evidence showing that Chinese honey was also being transshipped from Europe, South America and at least one African country.

The arrests and the investigation leading up to them demonstrated creative police work by ICE, Customs and Border Protection agents, and the offices of two U.S. Attorneys.  It was a solid, on the ground, door-knocking investigation that involved chasing intricate, multi-lingual paper trails.  (You just gotta love those search warrants.)

If found guilty of the conspiracy charges, the accused could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

April 2, 2009

Japanese scientists have figured out that chicken soup may be the secret to controlling high blood pressure.

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 08:23

Of course we all know that chicken soup – “Grandma’s Penicillin” – is good for curing much of what ails you. Some of us have passed the secret of this liquid medical wonder on for generations without really knowing from where its medicinal value comes.

My great grandmother would add several cloves of garlic to boost the healing power of her deep yellow brew.

Over the years, the chicken soup has been proven to have antibacterial and antiviral properties and boosts the immune system. In the 1990s, a physician from the University of Nebraska brought his wife’s chicken soup into the laboratory, tested it with white blood cells and showed that there were naturally occurring chemicals which could clear stuffy nose by stopping inflammation of the cells in the nasal passages.

In today’s edition of the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Japanese scientists document more important benefits.

Chicken soup with matzo ball from New York City;s 2nd Ave. Deli     photo by A.Schneider

Chicken soup with matzo ball from New York City;s 2nd Ave. Deli photo by A.Schneider

Dr. Ai Saiga and his colleagues report that the popular home remedy for the common cold may have a new role in fighting high blood pressure.

They found that the key ingredient might be the chicken’s legs and feet. The journal confirms what those of us who watched our grandmothers cook already new. The yellow feet were a key ingredient for flavor, but today, in the U.S., they are often discarded as waste. But elsewhere, cooks wouldn’t consider cooking a chicken soup without adding the feet as key ingredients.

In their testing, Saiga and his team extracted collagen from chicken legs and tested its ability to act as an ACE inhibitor – a vasodilator used in the treatment of hypertension and heart failure by causing the arteries to widen.

According to the journal, the scientists identified four different proteins in the collagen mixture with high ACE-inhibitory activity. And, when given to rats used to model human high blood pressure, the proteins produced a significant and prolonged decrease in blood pressure.

The Japanese team did not evaluate whether the addition of matzo balls increased the soup’s therapeutic value. However, since chicken soup with matzo balls is a staple served at the Jewish holiday of Passover (which begins April 8) home scientists may have the opportunity to do their own testing – or is that tasting?

Here’s a link to the journal article.

January 27, 2009

A 1,600 calorie dessert? Have two

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 14:02

<![CDATA[Sometimes frivolous topics can be serious.

Let’s talk about the “Food Porn Alert” issued today which either warns us off or entices us toward a Chocolate Chip Paradise Pie offered by Chili’s restaurant chain.

The “pie” is made from chocolate chips, walnuts and coconut with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and caramel toppings piled on top.

The alert was issued today by Nutrition Action, a newsletter put out by the nonprofit nutrition watchdog, the Center for Science in the Public Interest

That dessert provides 1,590 calories, 37 grams of saturated fat (almost two days’ worth), and 910 milligrams of sodium, about half of what you should have in a day.

The health group says the dessert is equivalent to 1 full racks of Chili’s Original Baby Back Ribs.

CSPI’s senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley say this kind of food porn helps explain America’s epidemic of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It also makes a compelling case why calorie counts belong right on the menus, not just buried on corporate web sites.”

Other recent “Food Porn” stars recognized by the group include Starbucks’ Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate, Sara Lee Cheesecake Bites, and DiGiorno’s Ultimate Focaccia Pizza.

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January 26, 2009

Widespread concealment of tainted imported honey

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food poisoning,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 16:40

<![CDATA[Yes, I wrote yet another story on honey laundering.

Given the multiple crises we face, the fact that money-grubbing business people here and in China are shipping and importing honey that’s erroneously labeled and may contain illegal antibiotics probably isn’t at the top of your must-do list for our new president.

I agree.

The banned drugs that the Chinese added to kill the epidemic that was decimating millions of their bee hives will only harm a very small number of the people who eat it. But many of the phone calls and e-mail I received today in reaction to the story, said it’s important if your child or loved one is among that small number who are sensitive to the animal medication.

In today’s story, I wrote about the National Honey Board and Sue Bee Associates, the nation’s largest honey seller, having knowledge of the presence of tainted honey and not seeing the need or value of telling federal health inspectors about it. In the case of the quasi-governmental honey board, its CEO was told about contaminated honey on grocery shelves and he said he didn’t notify health authorities because it wasn’t his job.

After today’s phone calls, I can add three companies who allegedly shipped bad honey back to their supplier with the knowledge that the loads would be resold to other U.S. honey packers.

Two of the people who supplied this information say that they felt that nothing would happen unless and until some really bad honey made it though our porous borders and lots of people either got sick or died.

I guess that’s why I write about honey and other potential hazards that are low on the government’s crisis list.

And to the gaggle of you who ask if I don’t have more important public health investigations to chase before the owners close this newspaper down in 40-something days, the answer is yes.

I crank out what I can, and I’ll keep doing it until they toss us all out.

For those who care, here’s a link to all the honey stories.

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January 15, 2009

Did poisoned U.S. dog food kill Chinese dogs?

Filed under: FDA,Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Food poisoning — Andrew Schneider @ 11:01

First, the Chinese poisoned our dogs and cats with contaminated pet food. Now Chinese authorities say a real or counterfeit brand of U.S.-made food � Optima – has killed or sickened dozens of dogs in several Chinese cities.

Ryan McLaughlin, a Canadian who lives in Suzhou, China, says he spent Christmas and New Year’s Day painfully watching Addie, his year-old golden retriever, die as her liver shut down after being poisoned by contaminants in the Optima dog food he says the pup was fed.


Addie from Ryan McLaughlin

He writes in his blog of the ordeal of trying to keep Addie alive and of how outraged he was that representatives of the Chinese company that imported the dog food came to the vet where Addie was being treated and said that they would cover all medical costs and, in the event of her death, they would come up with compensation of some sort.

“How exactly do they calculate that?” McLaughlin wrote. “Pro-rated from time of birth with a bonus for a good temperament and numbers of hours trained?

He said he understands that the company was doing damage control, but “they very likely killed my dog and actually had the audacity (to say) they’ll reimburse us based on book value for the breed plus a bit for pain and suffering.”

Addie and the other dogs were apparently sicken by a lethal aflatoxins contaminating the grain used in the food. The fungi is poisonous by-products that can be found on all grains and peanuts. It causes aflatoxicosis, which attacks the liver of animals and humans, and exposure to high levels can lead to acute liver failure or death within days.

Chinese press reports say the Ministry of Agriculture has ordered that sales of Optima be halted as they attempt to track the source of the tainted dog food.

While Optima is the name of an American dog food brand, it was unclear if the food sold in China came from the United States.

In the U.S., Optima products are sold by Mars Inc., which markets several popular brands of dog food.


Optima Dog Food

I asked Mars what they knew about the poisonings. Debra Fair, Mars’ public relations manager, said they were investigating the “situation.”

“Mars is aware of recent reports that dogs in the People’s Republic of China have died as a result of consuming what appeared to be Optima brand pet food. However, Mars does not sell Optima branded products in China,” Fair wrote me in an e-mail.

“Our initial findings suggest that the affected pet food was not manufactured by, nor under the authority of, Mars or any of its affiliated companies.”

She told me that Mars only sells that dog food in Taiwan.

But that statement does nothing to clarify the source of the poisoned food because Chinese officials said the Optima that sickened the dogs was imported to China through a Taiwan company, Natural Pet.

Fair said Mars will continue its investigation into this matter, “including working closely with FDA and other regulatory authorities who are investigating this situation.”

I’ve contacted the Taiwan exporter and the FDA for more information, but haven’t heard back yet.

Over the past four years, FDA has recalled hundreds of U.S. brands of pet food containing tainted wheat gluten and the chemical melamine. In 2007, that was the case with more than 150 brands of cat and dog food, after some pets became ill or died from kidney failure after eating food from China.

Last year, Mars Petcare US announced a recall of dry cat and dog food products manufactured at its Allentown, Penn., facility because of potential contamination with salmonella.

Vitamins + water + sugar + hype = Coke lawsuit

Filed under: FDA,Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 09:46

A class-action suit was filed this morning against the Coca-Cola Co. alleging deceptive and unsubstantiated claims on its VitaminWater line of beverages.

The suit was filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest which claims that Coke markets VitaminWater as a healthful alternative to soda by labeling its several flavors with such health buzz words as “defense,” “rescue,” “energy,” and “endurance.”

The company makes a wide range of dramatic claims, including that its drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function, said the Washington, D.C. based nonprofit health advocacy group.

However, the group’s nutritionists says that the 33 grams of sugar in each bottle of VitaminWater do more to promote obesity, diabetes, and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles.

“Coke fears, probably correctly, that they’ll sell less soda as Americans become increasingly concerned with obesity, diabetes, and other conditions linked to diets too high in sugar,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner.

“VitaminWater is Coke’s attempt to dress up soda in a physician’s white coat. Underneath, it’s still sugar water, albeit sugar water that costs about ten bucks a gallon.”

For the other side of the story, here is a link to VitaminWater’s website.

January 14, 2009

Watch those labels

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling — Andrew Schneider @ 15:47

The bees may be in their winter sleep period but their beekeepers are meeting in Reno and the honey packers association was evaluating its piece of the sweet industry in Fresno last week. New leadership and new ideas buzzing all over the place.

Meanwhile, back here in Seattle, I’’m still receiving dozens of e-mails and phone calls about the series of stories on imported Chinese honey that we ran last month, but I thought this one from Gordon Mitchell was worth sharing.

He said that after reading the articles he has a different view of supermarket honey.

“”It changed even more Saturday night,” he said, “when some friends came over. They brought a small honey gift, and as we sat down to eat we decided to try it. One of our friends tried the gift on some bread. He got a funny look on his face and said, “This tastes like soap.”

“Well, it was soap,” Mitchell said. Reading the fine print on the label, they discovered that they were sampling “The Savannah Bee Company, Orange Blossom Honey, Hand Soap.”

“It was in the food section of the store,” said the Woodinville shopper.

Be careful out there.

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