China is not the problem—lax quality assurance is

January 1, 2008

4 Min Read
China is not the problem—lax quality assurance is

It has been interesting to read the unfolding events over the past several months over the 'China' issue. There has been melamine in pet food, excessive lead in children's toys, toxic chemicals in toothpaste and toy beads coated with 1,4-butanediol, which metabolizes to the date-rape drug, gamma hydroxyl butyrate. It is clear that China recognizes the extent of the problem and many regulatory officials in the food and drug industry there have paid the price, with long prison or (even) death sentences.

This should come as no surprise to those of us that have been in the functional-ingredients industry. We have known for years that the Chinese have spiked their botanicals with chemical drugs and have lax testing for salmonella and other microbial contaminants. Chinese honey has been tainted with antibiotics. It stems from lax regulation and increased entrepreneurial spirit in China, but some of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of those companies that purchase materials based on a written specification only, that use unscrupulous ingredients brokers or who think that they can conduct business without an actual face-to-face working relationship.

Buying ingredients and products at the lowest possible cost invites suppliers to 'cheat' and meet the specification any way that they can, even if that means using unsafe chemicals in the process.

We have known about the 'made in China' issue since at least the 1950s. Why the uproar now? Many of the past incidents involved small numbers of people or were limited in scope. The incidents over the past several months have been in the news daily, with heart-wrenching pictures of sick pets and real health threats to children. It is now to the point where consumers are demanding that retailers and manufacturers discontinue the sale of products or ingredients from China.

This is clearly not a realistic demand, given how 'flat' the world is, but it is indicative of how easily consumer confidence can be eroded. China is being made a scapegoat, but its issues are only the tip of the iceberg. There are similar concerns with other parts of the developing world — India, Latin America and Eastern Europe. In addition, just because a product or ingredient is sourced in the US or Western Europe, doesn't mean that it is always a quality ingredient. Business fraud is a universal occurrence. It is best to trust, but verify.

We are marketing products that are designed to improve consumers' health and wellness. We have a responsibility to spend whatever it takes to assure the quality, safety and efficacy of what we sell. This is hardly a new message, but we continue to tolerate those in the industry who cut corners, and insist on purchasing ingredients at the lowest cost over concerns for safety and efficacy. This brings down the whole industry.

As an industry, we must support stricter regulations in China and other developing countries. We must support more funding and scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration to continue to root out unsafe products. This may involve industry cost sharing to accomplish much of what needs to be done.

Most importantly, each and every company must not only comply with Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), but they must assume full responsibility for the quality, safety and efficacy of their products. Companies must develop deep supply-chain relationships, and the principals must get on a plane, if necessary. Information must be shared, facilities must be toured and it must be made clear that quality is a shared accountability, and that transparency is extremely important to the business relationship.

It is quite possible to do quality manufacturing anywhere in the world. I just returned from a trip to India, where one of my clients is producing dietary-supplements products under strict GMPs in a facility in northern India. Its people and quality manufacturing environment would stand up to any other location in the world. It is committed to producing quality products and will be marketing these products around the globe.

China is not the problem — lax quality assurance and ignorance of the supply chain is. The solution is simple: invest in your quality-assurance department and processes. It is your best insurance for marketing a safe and efficacious product.

Mary C Mulry, PhD, is a product-development and quality-assurance consultant for natural, organic and speciality foods and dietary supplements, with more than 25 years' experience in consumer packaged goods and ingredients. Respond: [email protected]

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