Recalls also have highlighted the inadequacy of our inspection system. The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has only 450 inspectors to inspect the nearly 20 million shipments of food that enter the country each year. That means each consumer has to be extra vigilant.
To explore ways to protect ourselves, Bottom Line/Personal interviewed two leading consumer advocates -- food and drug safety adviser William Hubbard and product safety authority Donald L. Mays. Both testified recently at congressional hearings and shared insights into how to guard against dangerous items from China...
Food and drugs. Federal rules requiring retailers to label country of origin for a wide range of foods were supposed to take effect in 2004 but were postponed for most types of food until September 30, 2008. Those rules are in effect for seafood but are widely ignored. Also, if you buy a prepared seafood product, such as shrimp scampi in a package, as long as the processing occurred here, it is labeled "Made in USA" no matter where the seafood and other ingredients originated.
Seafood Problem: Toxic contaminants.
Recall: In July, the FDA declared an import alert for five types of seafood from China -- catfish, shrimp, eel, dace (a carplike fish) and basa (similar to catfish). Contaminants -- including residues of nitrofuran, an antibiotic drug used to keep fish free from certain bacteria... the toxic chemicals malachite green and gentian violet... and the antibiotic fluoroquinolone -- were found in more than 15% of the tested fish. The first three substances are carcinogens, and the fourth may increase resistance to important antibiotics, such as Cipro.
Under the alert, seafood shipments are held at the US border until importers conduct independent testing to show that the seafood is safe. Despite the import alert, at least one million pounds of suspect Chinese seafood has slipped past the inspectors.
Self-defense: Avoid seafood from China. Whenever possible, buy local freshwater fish, such as rainbow trout. Buy prepared products only at stores and from companies that you trust and that assure you that they do not buy seafood from China.
Check on seafood recalls with your state agricultural department. State agencies often do more extensive testing on food than the federal government does. To find the Web site of your state agricultural department, go to www.statelocalgov.net and click on "Agriculture."
Toothpaste Problem: Contains diethylene glycol (DEG),
DEG is a chemical used in antifreeze and as an industrial solvent. It can damage the kidneys as well as the central nervous system. DEG tastes sweet and is used as a cheaper substitute for pharmaceutical-grade glycerin, a sweetening thickener.
Recalls: In June, the FDA warned consumers to discard all toothpaste that was labeled as made in China after DEG was discovered in some tubes. In August, the manufacturer Gilchrest & Soames recalled complimentary tubes distributed to hotels in more than a dozen countries. To date, there have been no reports of poisoning.
Self-defense: Buy major brands at local drugstores and supermarkets. Don't buy toothpaste at flea markets or 99-cent stores, where most of the questionable products were distributed. Counterfeit toothpastes may have a foreign language instead of English on the packaging.
Pharmaceuticals Problem: DEG contamination.
Cough syrups and an acetaminophen syrup from China that contained DEG have caused a number of deaths among children in Panama and Haiti. So far, there have been no problems with Chinese-made drugs and herbal supplements in the US.
Self-defense: Make sure that any medicine you use is a known and trusted brand name and that it has an English-language label.
Pet Food Problem: Contains melamine
Melamine is a chemical used to make plastics and fertilizer. Pet food contaminated with melamine resulted in the illness or death of at least 4,000 cats and dogs.
Recalls: More than 150 brands of pet food tainted with melamine have been recalled this year.
Self-defense: Look for protein sources, such as chicken, chicken meal, beef and lamb meal -- rather than cheap fillers, such as cornmeal, wheat, oatmeal or millet -- as the main ingredient in the pet food you buy. Visit www.fda.gov/
oc/opacom/hottopics/petfood.html to get the latest information on pet food recalls.
Stay alert to future dangers by monitoring recalls listed on the FDA Web site, www.recalls.gov.
Consumer products. In 2006, three out of every four US recalls of imported products involved imports from China. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), which handles product safety inspections, has suffered severe staff and budget cuts. Also, it is not legally allowed to alert the public to a hazard until the case against the manufacturer is resolved.
Tires Problem: A missing safety feature called a "gum strip" that binds belts of a tire together so the tread does not separate from the tire... or gum strips that were not large enough. Tread separation can cause loss of vehicle control.
Recalls: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ordered the distributor Foreign Tire Sales Inc. to recall defective tires intended for pickups, sport-utility vehicles and light trucks. The distributor has recalled 255,000 tires, with the brand names Westlake, Compass and YKS.
Self-defense: US Customs requires country-of-origin labels on all tires made outside the US. Avoid tires from China.
Children's Toys Problem: Lead.
Recalls: This summer, Mattel announced worldwide recalls of 2.7 million toys with paint that had high levels of lead. Since 2003, the CPSC has announced recalls of more than 165 million pieces of children's jewelry with high levels of lead, many of them sold in vending machines.
Self-defense: Buy toys labeled "Made in USA" or those made by European companies with good reputations for safety, such as Lego of Denmark and Haba of Germany. Avoid cheap children's jewelry found in vending machines and discount stores and all children's metal jewelry. Favor brand-name retailers. Example: Toys "R" Us has stepped up third-party testing for lead in toys it sells and increased its quality-assurance budget by 25%.
Get recall updates. Sign up for CPSC alerts at www.cpsc.gov/cpsclist.aspx so that when a product is recalled, you will get an E-mail.