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May 06, 2007

Adulterated And Counterfeit Chinese Ingredients Sicken And Kill Thousands

[by litbrit]

A quick math question:  If the FDA inspects less than 2% of all imported food and food ingredients (and those are their numbers, not mine), what are the odds that a given Chinese shipment marked Food Grade Glycerin--one that actually held container after container of the cheap, sweet, and lethally poisonous antifreeze diethylene glycol--would be intercepted before its consignors distributed it far and wide, where it would be poured into cough syrups and toothpaste, then shipped to consumers who, along with their children, would be poisoned and killed?

Now consider this:  the above scenario has happened, and is still happening, in other countries. I imagine you are quite rightly worried.  The FDA would appear to be getting there, too--on March 21, 2007, the agency quietly issued an Import Alert, calling for increased surveillance--not an outright ban or full-scale, mandatory inspections--of glycerin imports.  Then, on May 4th, the FDA sent out an advisory to pharmaceutical manufacturers, drug repackers, and other health professionals:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning pharmaceutical manufacturers, suppliers, drug repackers, and health professionals who compound medications to be especially vigilant in assuring that glycerin, a sweetener commonly used worldwide in liquid over-the-counter and prescription drug products, is not contaminated with diethylene glycol (DEG). DEG is a known poison used in antifreeze and as a solvent. Today, the agency is issuing guidance to industry recommending methods of testing glycerin and other controls to identify any contamination with DEG before use in the manufacture or preparation of pharmaceutical products.

At the present time, FDA has no reason to believe that the U.S. supply of glycerin is contaminated with DEG, though the agency is cognizant of reports from other countries over the past several years in which DEG-contaminated glycerin has caused human deaths. FDA is emphasizing the importance of testing glycerin for DEG due to the serious nature of this potentially fatal problem in combination with the global nature of the pharmaceutical supply chain and problems that continue to occur with this kind of contamination in some parts of the global supply of glycerin.

And appearing in today's New York Times is this disturbing, must-read article:

Many of them are children, poisoned at the hands of their unsuspecting parents.

The syrupy poison, diethylene glycol, is an indispensable part of the modern world, an industrial solvent and prime ingredient in some antifreeze.

It is also a killer. And the deaths, if not intentional, are often no accident.

Over the years, the poison has been loaded into all varieties of medicine — cough syrup, fever medication, injectable drugs — a result of counterfeiters who profit by substituting the sweet-tasting solvent for a safe, more expensive syrup, usually glycerin, commonly used in drugs, food, toothpaste and other products.

Toxic syrup has figured in at least eight mass poisonings around the world in the past two decades. Researchers estimate that thousands have died. In many cases, the precise origin of the poison has never been determined. But records and interviews show that in three of the last four cases it was made in China, a major source of counterfeit drugs.

Panama is the most recent victim. Last year, government officials there unwittingly mixed diethylene glycol into 260,000 bottles of cold medicine — with devastating results. Families have reported 365 deaths from the poison, 100 of which have been confirmed so far. With the onset of the rainy season, investigators are racing to exhume as many potential victims as possible before bodies decompose even more.

Panama’s death toll leads directly to Chinese companies that made and exported the poison as 99.5 percent pure glycerin.

[...]

Forty-six barrels of the toxic syrup arrived via a poison pipeline stretching halfway around the world. Through shipping records and interviews with government officials, The New York Times traced this pipeline from the Panamanian port of Colón, back through trading companies in Barcelona, Spain, and Beijing, to its beginning near the Yangtze Delta in a place local people call “chemical country.”

The counterfeit glycerin passed through three trading companies on three continents, yet not one of them tested the syrup to confirm what was on the label. Along the way, a certificate falsely attesting to the purity of the shipment was repeatedly altered, eliminating the name of the manufacturer and previous owner. As a result, traders bought the syrup without knowing where it came from, or who made it. With this information, the traders might have discovered — as The Times did — that the manufacturer was not certified to make pharmaceutical ingredients.

An examination of the two poisoning cases last year — in Panama and earlier in China — shows how China’s safety regulations have lagged behind its growing role as low-cost supplier to the world. It also demonstrates how a poorly policed chain of traders in country after country allows counterfeit medicine to contaminate the global market.

Last week, the United States Food and Drug Administration warned drug makers and suppliers in the United States “to be especially vigilant” in watching for diethylene glycol. The warning did not specifically mention China, and it said there was “no reason to believe” that glycerin in this country was tainted. Even so, the agency asked that all glycerin shipments be tested for diethylene glycol, and said it was “exploring how supplies of glycerin become contaminated.”

It is a long and harrowing piece, one I can't recommend enough.

And in a related story, news on the adulterated food front keeps getting worse.  Last week, the FDA began inspecting American food-processing facilities--as in, manufacturers of food meant for humans--and Chinese authorities detained one manager working at  Xuzhou Anying, exporters of the tainted wheat gluten that U.S. company ChemNutra resold to Menu Foods and other manufacturers.

Surely I'm not alone in wondering exactly how big the Big Picture really is?  Here we are, witnessing the dark and deadly effects wrought by a  disturbing new strain of unbound, unchecked capitalism, one that takes the form of opportunistic criminals driving overseas containers through the gaping holes in our regulatory system.  Yet only a handful of bloggers--Goldy (who wonders if the fake glycerin may have caused all the renal failure in American cats and dogs), as well as the folks at Ichmo and Pet Connection, for example--and newspaper writers seem to be following through with the developments, observing the connections,  pointing out the deeply worrisome implications.

I was particularly struck by this quote in the above-linked Times article:

In Bangladesh, investigators found poison in seven brands of fever medication in 1992, but only after countless children died. A Massachusetts laboratory detected the contamination after Dr. Michael L. Bennish, a pediatrician who works in developing countries, smuggled samples of the tainted syrup out of the country in a suitcase. Dr. Bennish, who investigated the Bangladesh epidemic and helped write a 1995 article about it for BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal, said that given the amount of medication distributed, deaths “must be in the thousands or tens of thousands.”

In the thousands or tens of thousands. Terrorism attacked us on our own soil in 2001, but human greed would appear to be going one step further, attacking us within our own bodies.  Poisoning our food and our medicine; poisoning adults and children and animals--around the world, and here at home.  Poisoning us.

Also at Shakesville.

May 6, 2007 in International | Permalink

Comments

Yeah, well, I once heard about an American pharmacist who diluted cancer drugs to make a higher profit, so that negates everything you say, which is all racist and xenophobic anyway.

There, now that's out of the way.

The love of money is the root of all evil, someone once said. One strain of the Dinee (Navajo) origin story says that when the Holy People came into this world, one of them - IIRC, some say Coyote and others First Man - went back into the last in order to bring witchcraft into the world.

Witchcraft is the knowledge of how to make money.

Going further with Dinee ideas, a terrible insult is to say that someone acts as if he has no relatives. Acting like you don't have any relatives allows you to be supremely selfish, to take actions that harm others without remorse because you believe that you won't be hurt by it. That's what's happening with these Chinese "food" suppliers, though obviously they aren't the only and perhaps not even the worst of this attitude.

Evil is evil is evil, yet the monsters who kill children to earn a few extra dollars make deluded, power-hungry and psychologically disturbed people like Stalin and Pol Pot seem almost noble.

Posted by: Stephen | May 6, 2007 1:47:07 PM

litbrit...

i am really appreciative for the posts you have been providing on the food additive crisis.
is there really an fda?
....frankly, i am stunned by the lack of information the fda has provided, and also the news media.
has the media just blacked out the information because of corporate or government pressure?
there seems to be no definitive information.
....litbrit, a few weeks ago, you referenced an article that suggested that these chemicals might be over-expressions of enzymes and chemicals in genetically modified foods and not the result of deliberate tampering or additives.
i wonder if there is any more information on that.
sandwiched between the paris hilton story and the wedge tornado report, came two sentences on cnn about possible contamination of glycerin.
....i also dont understand why there is not more concern or outcry for information after we have been told about the quarantine on millions of chickens.
are people still buying chicken?
....and why would these additives not be in pasta and bread and cereal also?
....and if it might be possible that there is glycerin contamination, isnt glycerin used in just about everything from waxings on fruit to candies to medications, capsules, to soaps on our skin?
....after last year's constant barrage of horrors over a pandemic of avian flu and the year before, visions of mad cow disease, have people just become desensitized and dont care anymore?
....i cant believe the blackout of information, and the lack of outcry or seeming interest from the public for information.
when i mention it to many people, they just seem to have a blank expression.
the whole thing is really stunning to me.
.....

Posted by: jacqueline | May 6, 2007 1:58:03 PM

jacqueline, we are of the same mind about this--it's just amazing to me that so few people are aware of this outrageous issue and all its implications. That's why I write about it, and believe me, I am enormously grateful--to Ezra, to Melissa at Shakesville--for the opportunity bring this story to the attention of as many intelligent, involved persons as possible. I'm also grateful to other bloggers I've mentioned who are keeping the spotlight turned on.

Posted by: litbrit | May 6, 2007 2:06:21 PM

i also realize that even if we are concerned and want to avoid eating certain things until we have more information, unless we know the country of origin for ingredients, it is almost impossible to make an informed choice, as these substances are in so many of the foods we eat each day
and i disheartendly imagine that bulk manufacturer's supplies of most of these things now come from china anyway.
....this reminds me of a little joke i once heard...
a person received an urgent telegram,
she nervously opened it, and it said,
"bad news to follow!"

Posted by: jacqueline | May 6, 2007 2:20:02 PM

maybe al gore would like to make
"an inconvenient truth" - part two
....addressing our global food supply from planting
to processing.

seems all of the candidates are too busy spinning
and dont seem to have the time or courage to address anything like this with honesty and urgency.

Posted by: jacqueline | May 6, 2007 2:36:53 PM

Scary stuff. Good to keep us informed, librit.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 6, 2007 3:33:16 PM

Brad DeLong and other free traders are objectively pro-adulterated food.

Posted by: jerry | May 6, 2007 4:10:19 PM

Why do we need to import food?

Posted by: merlallen | May 7, 2007 8:59:22 AM

Thanks for bringing this story up, litbrit, I hadn't heard about it before.

Posted by: maurinsky | May 7, 2007 9:42:33 AM

"Why do we need to import food?"

Because it's cheaper! Now we know why.

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