In the past few days we’ve heard of yet another occurrence of Chinese shenanigans with poisoned products: this time it’s toothpaste contaminated with diethylene glycol (DEG) – an industrial chemical with nephrotoxic and hepatotoxic properties. DEG-contaminated products have killed numerous people in past incidents (examples 1, 2, 3).
It appears Chinese manufacturers are functioning these days with little safety oversight. At this point, if you’re buying packaged food or anything else you put in or on your body that has “China” written anywhere on the package, I can only ask, why? However, even that simple precaution won’t fully mitigate the risk. In cases where Chinese-prepared base materials or unfinished mixtures are incorporated into Western-finished products, I don’t believe that information has to be indicated on the label. And we saw with the recent pet food debacle—which nearly killed my parents’ cat and left her permanently ill—the quality control protocols closer to home may not be able to catch the presence of an unusual contaminant in a finished product before it’s too late.
The Chinese predilection toward cutting corners regardless of killing a few foreigners reminds me a little bit of some manufacturer shenanigans that occurred in our own history: I’m referring to the “Ginger Jake” incident that occurred during Prohibition times in the U.S. (here’s a TIME article from 1930 —note this line about the use of ginger, “Many women use the candied root or the extract to soothe their periodic griping.” Ha!) Jake was marketed as a health drink but as everyone was aware, it was actually a strong alcoholic beverage and so became quite popular among people who couldn’t get their hands on the good stuff. Unfortunately, Jake drinkers developed a delayed neuropathic syndrome with a prominently featured paralysis of the feet and sometimes hands – a serious neuropathy that in many cases was permanent. The culprit was found to be tri-o-cresyl phosphate, a plasticizer that was added to the drink to increase its volume of dissolved solids. If I recall correctly, this characteristic enabled the drink to be marketed as other than an alcoholic beverage. As was soon discovered by hundreds of hapless consumers, tri-o-cresyl phosphate is an organophosphate neurotoxin (want a refill on that nerve agent cocktail, pal?). This mass poisoning, among many others early in the last century including DEG poisonings, led to the U.S. 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which significantly strengthened the previously weak oversight of such products.
Do the Chinese even have something like a Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act? Yes, in fact they do, but it seems their State Food and Drug Administration has been a bit lax in enforcement of late due to widespread corruption reaching to the top. Things could improve since they decided it’s time for the Chinese school solution of killing the guy in charge. But until we find out how effective the fear of death is on greedy Chinese manufacturers, we’d all be well advised to just pay more for Western-made products. It’s well worth your health to avoid Chinese imports at whatever cost. Western manufacturers, as well, who want to avoid future liabilities should be seeking other sources for materials that will eventually end up in, or on, anything that’s supposed to continue living afterwards.
Previous post: Know where your food comes from?
More information: the U.S. FDA has a system called OASIS that records import alerts and refusals. You can look up how many products were refused by country, month, and other criteria. To explore this topic, try starting from this page.
UPDATE: Why China Sucks! Timeline of dangerous Chinese products at where else, Who Sucks.
UPDATE: He’s dead, Jim! As noted above, the Chinese decided killing this man would improve their safety record and their image.