Do you take vitamin C? Odds are that little tablet you're eating came from China. After the recent scandals involving tainted pet food and toothpaste, what guarantees do we have that our vitamins are safe?
The straight answer to that question really seems to be "None", and here's why.
The city of Shijiahuang, China is a two-hour train ride south of Beijing and it is being called a pharmaceutical hub. Manager's at "the world's largest vitamin C factory" say that they are improving quality control in an effort to keep up with the huge increases in production over the past few years. Liu Lifeng is an aide to the general manager at Weisheng Pharmaceutical: "We used to only comply with domestic standards. Now we must comply with international standards." and they report that food and drug-safety inspectors check the plant from time-to-time.
However, here's where the web gets woven. The food and drug inspectors work for the city government and it just so happens that the city government is a part owner of, you guessed it, Weisheng Pharmaceuticals.
Kathryn Boor is a food-safety expert at Cornell University: "That's a conflict of interest right there. You really need a disinterested party involved in inspections."
That kind of relationship between food and drug inspectors and China's booming agricultural and pharmaceutical industries is coming to the fore as an issue in the food-safety debate. The local government in this thriving city of 2 million people would suffer if it did anything to hurt the growth of local vitamin and drug producers, and local officials might be reluctant to admit that a public safety issue had arisen.
Most of the vitamins that are consumed in the world are now made in China. It’s has taken them just 10 years, but it is being reported that China has now captured around 90 percent of the US market for vitamin C market and, in the process of doing this, have driven almost everyone else out of business.
Chinese pharmaceutical companies reportedly have taken over a huge part of the world’s market for the production of antibiotics, analgesics, enzymes and primary amino acids. According to an industry group, China makes 70 percent of the world's penicillin, 50 percent of its aspirin and 35 percent of its acetaminophen (often sold under the brand name Tylenol), as well as the bulk of vitamins A, B12, C and E.
As was reported by Lady_Justice in her post entitled "China is "Dead Serious" about Tainted Food and Medicine", Zheng Xiaoyu, a former chief of the Food and Drug Administration, was given the death sentence for taking $832,000 in bribes to let unsafe drugs on the market. Another aide to Mr. Zheng was give a 15-year jail sentence last Fall.
Peter Kovacs is a food-industry consultant: "The industry in China is bifurcated between top-notch companies that are highly skilled and do all the right things, and the second- and third-tier producers, some of which are just sloppy bucket shops."
Foreign buyers of Chinese drug and vitamins agree that the low end of China's market has severe problems. Jan Willem Roben is a broker of food additives based out of Shanghai: "Sometimes you enter a factory, and you say, 'I can't believe they produce food here.' It's dirty and the machines are old."
However, at the huge production plant in Weisheng, you can see nicely uniformed employees bustling about on neat, well swept walkways, as they enter production areas where the assembly lines are purring away. The machinery looks clean enough, but recently, managers told a visitor that they were not allowed to take pictures of the factory areas.
Earlier this year, a survey was conducted and it found that three out of every five Chinese people worry that the food they eat is contaminated or is adulterated.
In the US, it is not a requirement under law to put on a food or drug label where the ingredients actually come from. This makes it virtually impossible for a consumer to find out where a product is manufactured. However, in this day and age of the internet, all things can be researched, and you as a consumer should do your research. I personally purchase vitamins and supplements that are all manufactured in Canada. I know that this does not necessarily guarantee that all of the ingredients that go into the vitamin or supplement are made in Canada, but it does tell me that the company cares enough about their product to make it here in Canada under our much stricter quality control rules and regulations governing vitamins and drugs than China's.