China heats up food battle

Times Staff Writer

In blocking shipments of chicken feet, pork ribs and other food products from major American companies, China has escalated a food fight with the United States, threatening to worsen the already tense trade relations between the two nations.

China’s quality watchdog agency announced over the weekend that it was suspending some imports from seven U.S. companies, including giants Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. and Tyson Foods.

The agency said that Tyson’s frozen foods were tainted with salmonella and that Cargill’s pork ribs contained a feed additive approved in the U.S. but not China.


Both companies responded guardedly. Tyson said it had received no notification from the Chinese government about the ban, and Cargill said the manufacturer was already seeking approval for the banned substance.

“We will work with the U.S. and Chinese governments to get this matter resolved,” Tyson spokeswoman Libby Lawson said.

The suspension was the latest strike in a widening skirmish that began in March after pet food ingredients from China sickened thousands of dogs and cats in the United States.

Since then, U.S. food regulators also have restricted imports of Chinese shrimp, eel, catfish and other seafood, citing concerns about carcinogens or residues of antibiotics. China has sent back U.S. shipments of dried apricots, raisins and a sugar-free drink mix that regulators said contained too much red dye.

On Sunday, the American Chamber of Commerce in China, whose members include Cargill and Tyson, responded to the suspension with a statement saying that blocking the foods would be proper -- if based on facts.

The statement, by the chamber’s chairman, James Zimmerman, also urged China to increase product quality and protection for consumers.

“We do not believe a trade war is imminent,” he said. “Both sides have challenges to ensure that consumer health and safety ... is given first priority.”

Chinese officials and scholars agreed that the brouhaha over foods wasn’t likely to have a big effect on bilateral trade relations.

Still, in recent days Beijing has voiced complaints about what it regards as sensationalized negative reports about Chinese-made goods and indiscriminate action by American food regulators.

“Some foreign media, especially those based in the U.S., have wantonly reported on so-called unsafe Chinese products. They are turning white to black,” Li Changjiang, minister of General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, was quoted as saying Sunday by the government-controlled newspaper China Daily.

To bolster confidence at home and abroad, China has announced a series of steps to improve and enforce food quality standards. This month, Beijing executed the former head of the food and drug safety agency for taking bribes from pharmaceutical companies.

“It is true that domestic food safety has some problems.... But China has spent quite a lot of effort to examine food quality for exports,” said Mei Xinyu, a researcher at China’s Ministry of Commerce.

“The fact that U.S. import food has problems itself is nothing surprising,” he added. “The problem has existed since long ago. We were too lenient toward foreign things and did not execute our regulations strictly.”

In Internet discussions Sunday, many Chinese applauded the suspension of American foods as long overdue. “Support it! Deal with a man as he deals with you,” said an anonymous posting from Beijing on, a major Chinese Web portal.

The tit-for-tat on food shipments could further strain matters in Washington, where members of Congress have threatened to impose stiff import duties on Chinese goods amid a soaring U.S. trade deficit with the rising Asian nation.

Through May, the U.S. trade shortfall with China was running 17% ahead of the pace of last year, when the deficit with China hit a record $233 billion.

Some U.S. politicians have accused Beijing of currency manipulation and unfair trade practices.

“By making a public announcement [on the imported food suspension], it is a sign of Chinese government’s complaining or even taking small revenge,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at People’s University of China in Beijing.

However the food spat goes, he said, “the largest negative impact is still the focus on trade surplus. And there is a trend of politicizing China trade issues.”

Food accounts for a small fraction of the overall trade volume between the two countries. But U.S. companies see big opportunities amid China’s rising incomes and increasing shortages of items such as meats.

The U.S. exported $171 million of poultry meat to China from October 2006 to May 2007, an 84% increase from the same period a year earlier and the highest export level since at least 1970, according to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

In recent days, Chinese state-controlled media have reported China’s interest in importing more pork from companies such as Tyson and Smithfield Foods Inc.

Lawson, the Tyson spokeswoman, said China accounted for 8% of the company’s $889.9 million in international chicken sales in 2006. In comparison, she said, Mexico accounted for 37% of that number and Russia made up 22%.

Besides foods from Cargill and Tyson, China’s suspension of imports included frozen chicken feet from Sanderson Farms Inc., alleged to be tainted with residue of an anti-parasite drug, and frozen pig ears from Van Luin Foods USA Inc., which Chinese regulators said were found to contain ractopamine, a feed additive used to produce leaner meat.

Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, said that China’s rejection of the imports went against the policies of the U.S. and other countries around the world, which accept products with ractopamine and some salmonella.

“It is acceptable to have low levels of salmonella in a raw product,” Riley said. “This product was inspected and passed for meat consumption in the U.S.”

Food safety issues are often used for political means in times of strained trade relations, said Doug Powell, head of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University. For example, Russia banned U.S. poultry imports in 2002 just a week after President Bush introduced steep tariffs on imported steel that resonated throughout the Russian steel industry.

“Politically, it’s a standard tactic,” Powell said. “They’ll say it is a food safety issue, but really it’s a political issue.”

Times staff writer Alana Semuels contributed to this report.