China battles ingredients image problem

Despite government and industry efforts to improve the quality of Chinese food and supplement ingredients, the perception remains that the only truly saleable aspect of many Chinese ingredients and foods is the fact they are usually a lot cheaper than their western counterparts. China said it had shut down more than 150,000 food processors in 2006 alone in a bid to improve standards.

The recent pet food scare in which products were found to be contaminated with melamine only served to solidify that perception in many people's minds. Indeed the Asian sales manager of one US-based supplier that has an extensive business in China, told FF&Nthere were many 'melamine situations' occurring every day — it just so happened melamine was detected by an overstretched food safety administration system.

But many others slip through the net and not just from China, but destinations all over the world. China seems to cop the worst rap, probably because of the sheer volume of its ingredients exports, even though India and Mexico have notched greater numbers of "refused food shipments." It's a situation that has had headlines from US news organisations like asking questions like, "Is China Trying to Poison Americans and Their Pets?"

In this sense China, to a certain extent, is being used as a scapegoat to justify the inability of the United States to regulate and maintain the integrity and safety of its own food system. Nevertheless, the situation has led to companies like Maryland-based Shuster Laboratories establishing product testing facilities in China. "Recent quality and safety issues with products sourced in China have amplified concern among the industry and consumers," said Dr. Kaveh Afshar, chief operating officer of Shuster Laboratories. "If a food or dietary supplement company is buying ingredients overseas, directly or through an agent, then they must have a program in place to ensure product quality and safety at all critical points in the supply chain."

In the US, supplements companies are taking matters into their own hands. Utah-based Food for Health International, a supplements maker that does a lot of its business online, has taken the rather provocative action of labeling some of its products as 'China-free.' While it has been criticized for racism, it defends itself by pointing to the fact it wants to highlight to consumers the fact its ingredients are derived from whole and organic sources as opposed to synthetic sources for various vitamins and minerals — many of which derive from China.

"It is a response to the (headlines) coming out, and we are taking a position that we are not the only ones reading them," Shuster Laboratories president Frank Davis told Reuters.

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