U.S. food watchdog sets up in China, amid dairy clash

By Emma Graham-Harrison

BEIJING (Reuters) - Washington plans to check Chinese food for bugs and toxins before it even sets sail for the United States, as part of a strategy to keep consumers safe in the face of global trade challenges, the U.S. Health Secretary said on Tuesday.

Mike Leavitt, speaking ahead of the opening of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offices in China’s political, financial and export hubs, said the U.S. could no longer rely on border checks.

“The global market has clearly changed the nature of our challenge in keeping products safe,” he said, adding that imports to the U.S. would be close to $2 trillion this year alone.

“When one sees the enormity of that it becomes clear you cannot inspect everything. It would bring the global economy into gridlock, therefore we have to change our strategy,” he told a news conference after meetings with Chinese counterparts.

Talk of a new import safety model came as Beijing called for the lifting of a ban on Chinese dairy products which could foreshadow the regime Leavitt hopes to usher in.

The United States issued an import alert for Chinese-made food products last week, calling for foods to be stopped at the border unless importers could certify they are either free of dairy products or free of melamine.

The burden will be on the importer to certify the food does not contain dairy products, or is melamine-free.

Through the new FDA offices the U.S. also aims to work with countries much as large companies work with their suppliers, contracting out pre-shipment safety checks, that will speed to well-supervised quality control firms.

FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach likened tackling food safety problems to fighting a forest fire, saying it was best to prevent either breaking out in the first place. Being on the ground in China to work with producers is a key way to do this.

The Beijing opening will be followed by two offices in India in December, and two more in Latin America in early 2009.

“We are going to say to the world, we want your products in the United States … but if you are going to have access to our consumers you need to meet the safety and quality standards that we put forward,” Leavitt said.

“If they are certified we will let them through. If not, you can count on heightened scrutiny. That is our new strategy”

SCRUTINY IN CHINA

At least four Chinese babies died and tens of thousands were made ill this year from drinking milk powder adulterated with melamine, a chemical used to cheat protein tests. Many countries have begun checking Chinese exports of milk and egg products.

Last year, melamine-tainted pet food ingredients from China were blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats in the United States.  Continued…

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