05/10/2007, 00.00
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Poor monitoring and thirst for profit behind 100 poison deaths in Panama

Liquid antifreeze sold as a drug. Fake medicines. Food contaminated without any thought about the consequences. The world is wondering just how safe the food and drugs monitoring by Chinese authorities is. Experts believe this is the outcome of too much focus on the economy and too little on morality. The first part of a dossier.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – One hundred deaths in Panama coming from a Chinese cough syrup – this is the most tragic, recent result of a deadly serious lack of checks in China to ensure food and drugs safety. Poor controls, pollution and widespread forgeries are at the root of this state of affairs.

In Panama, there have been more than 100 official deaths (more than 365 according to other sources) and hundreds of poisoning cases because a cough medicine, used especially for children, included a Chinese product identified as glycerin, a common ingredient in medicine. However, in reality, it contained a poisonous industrial antifreeze, diethylene glycol. Now, Jiang Yu, spokesman for China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, said that neither the chemical company that made the toxic syrup, the Taixing Glycerine Factory, nor the state-owned firm that exported it, CNSC Fortune Way, had a licencse to produce and handle drugs. Hence, he concluded, they did not fall under the regulatory supervision of China’s drug administration.

Yesterday, China’s State Council launched a campaign for intensified monitoring of its food products after recently admitting that two Chinese firms (Binzhou Futian Biology Technology and Xuzhou Anving Biology Technology Development Company) had exported wheat gluten and rice protein containing melamine to the United States.

This is a cheap substance used for plastics, without nutritional value, but since it has the same make-up as protein, it makes food products seem as if they have more protein. When dozens of cats and dogs that had eaten this food in the USA died two months ago, China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said "China has nothing to do with the pet poisoning in the United States”, and that China "never exported wheat or wheat gluten to ... the United States". Now the organisation has announced strict monitoring measures across the country. Meanwhile, the US Food and Agriculture department claimed that the Chinese product has also been used in food given to millions of chickens, fish and pigs.

But the real problem is that all this is a case of “deja-vu”: in 2005, Zheng Xiaoyu, head of the State Food and Drug Administration, was arrested for taking large bribes to approve untested medicine. Yesterday, Chinese media announced that his trial was imminent, but it is not clear whether the 170,000 drugs approved during his time in office had been subjected to review.

Steve Tsang, an expert at Oxford University, said this was the result of Communist ideology, of the state suppression of religion and efforts to sweep away Chinese moral tradition to make way for the myth of economic profit. He said: “A democratic government would not be re-elected if it failed to protect the physical safety of its citizens, as happened in China” and the media would denounce such cases.

Shi Xianming, a specialist in food safety at Jiaotong University in Shanghai, slammed the government for the insufficient attention and punitive measures with which it handled such situations. “The government does not put in place penalties that are severe enough for illicit foodstuffs. Violations of the law are punished lightly so people are not too worried about that.”

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