Now with Less Melamine

For those of you following the long and tense year in U.S.-China food imports, there was a significant—OK, maybe somewhat significant, sort of—new food-safety agreement signed between the countries this week. It’s unclear how much it’ll matter.

Chinese companies exporting food and medicine to the United States will have to register with the Chinese government and be inspected annually. The Chinese government is in turn implementing new inspection systems that will conform to American standards. As the Los Angeles Times reports, “The foods covered are canned vegetables and other preserved fare, pet food and treats, raw materials such as wheat and rice protein used in a wide variety of products, and farm-raised fish and shellfish.”

But as Illinois senator Richard Durbin says, the agreement covers “a tiny fraction of the food we import from China.” Even an unnamed senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services lowballed the agreement, calling it “a first step.” It’s true that it isn’t wholly logical. Here’s the Times again: “Chinese authorities agreed to notify their U.S. counterparts within 24 hours of any medications sent to the United States that could pose a hazard. However, the window for notification in cases of risky food is 48 hours. And food may be consumed more quickly than medications are.”

As the Chicago Tribune explains, earlier this year the FDA had restricted some fish from China, including shrimp, after banned antibiotics were detected. Those items will now be allowed in, but the new agreement, as the Tribune notes, leaves enforcing the new standards “largely up to the Chinese.” In fact, the most interesting aspect to the discussions might be that the secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, said that he eventually expects FDA officials to be “embedded” in China to ramp up the food-inspection programs.

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