US Pet Deaths: Wake-Up Call on Global Food Safety?

Pesticides and fertilizers have long contributed to global food security. But some farmers, tempted by high crop yields and profits, overuse the products, allowing excess agrochemicals to infiltrate water supplies and soil. The US Food and Drug Administration confirmed deaths of 16 pets and received more than 15,000 complaints of ill pets, linked to gluten imported from China. The reports immediately unleashed protectionist instincts and concern about imported food products. Investigators have not yet determined how the gluten was contaminated, but more inspections or import controls won’t tackle the root causes. All nations must join together on global safety standards. The US has high standards when it comes to its own food supply, yet remains one of the few nations reluctant to ratify two global treaties, one that bans the most dangerous agrochemicals and another that requires exporters to inform customers about chemical restrictions. Confronted by diminishing supplies of fresh water that exacerbate the danger of pollution, the world cannot afford cavalier attitudes from any nation about dangerous chemicals. – YaleGlobal

US Pet Deaths: Wake-Up Call on Global Food Safety?

Without controls on agrochemicals, protectionist calls to limit crop imports provide a false sense of security
Susan Froetschel
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Danger from afar: US veterinarian worker comforts a dog, sick after eating food made

with Chinese-supplied ingredients. Inset: Pet-food recall notice in US stores.

NEW HAVEN: A spate of US pet deaths linked to tainted gluten imports prompted massive recalls and risks intensifying the protectionist mood permeating the developed world. The scandal also serves as a reminder of the closely interconnected nature of today’s world where harmful exports to foreign countries come back to haunt the exporting nations.

In the pet-food case, blame quickly focused on China, identified as the source for the gluten. Critics blasted China’s lax controls amid an increasing share of the global produce market. “With surging imports come safety concerns,” warned one headline from “The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.”

But controlling imports may not address real concerns associated with the global food supply. Unless all nations agree on measures to control production and export of the most dangerous chemicals in the agriculture industry, the pet-food scare could be prelude for more unexpected deaths and stopgap fixes. Failure to control the numerous chemicals used in the agriculture industry could be a blow to the poorest nations, as protectionists take advantage of every scare to shield home markets from competition.

The case of pet food contaminated with a substance used in some agrochemical products demonstrates the interconnected nature of global trade: The US is a major developer, user and exporter of agrochemicals to the world and the leading exporter of pesticides to China.

Global health and environmental problems long associated with chemicals for boosting crop yields prompted two international treaties, in force since 2004. Both treaties attempt to control persistent organic pollutants (POPs), recognized as environmental hazards worldwide.

By refusing to ratify the treaties and join global safety standards, Washington cannot expect other nations to respect its own high standards.

For sure, nobody has linked the pet deaths to US failure to ratify the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which bans a group of highly dangerous chemicals and sets a timetable for bans on others.

What is good for the plant may not be good for you: Chinese farmer sprays

pesticide which often enters the food chain. (Photo: Greenpeace)

But the US sets a tone for global nonchalance about chemicals: US firms dismiss European worries about genetically modified seeds, designed to resist insects and herbicides, and US chemical firms have concocted more substances than inspectors could ever hope to monitor. Marketing that emphasizes yields, combined with lax guidance for overseas buyers, tempts many farmers to overuse agrochemicals to increase profits. Finally, the US has signed but not ratified the Rotterdam Convention, which requires chemical exporters to notify purchasers of any bans or restrictions in their own country – an informed consent of sorts.

Reluctant to ratify the two treaties, the US contributes to a general global distrust and endangers the welfare of its own consumers.

To assure furious pet owners, the US immediately banned gluten imports from China. But that hardly gets at the root cause of the problem. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that, in 2000, about 73,000 children were exposed to or poisoned by household pesticides in the US.

The variety of agrochemicals is mind-boggling. The state of New York alone has thousands of products registered for use as pesticides, with names like Green Death, Rascal Plus and Pristine Fungicide. The chemicals promise to eliminate a long list of species, from rats and roaches to weeds and mosses. The list also includes repellants for cats and dogs.

The number of products makes it impossible for US inspectors to test every crop – domestic or imported – for every possible chemical. In 2003 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) analyzed 7,234 food samples, and found pesticide residues in 37.3 percent of domestic samples and 28.2 percent of import samples from 99 countries.

Suppliers to overseas farmers also tinker for formulas, hoping for larger yields. China reports rapid growth in its pesticide industry, with $1.2 billion in exports in 2004. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) website warns that small companies in developing nations, like China, formulate new products, often with inadequate testing or long-term studies.

In the pet food case, US and Chinese investigators have not determined how melamine – a plastic resin also used as a fertilizer in some countries – found its way into the gluten. The addition could have been a deliberate attempt to add bulk to the product or an accidental application with fertilizer. US regulators will travel to China to investigate, but assured nervous consumers that melamine is not registered for use as a fertilizer in the US. They don’t mention that a related chemical, trichloromelamine, is registered in the US as a sanitizer for food-contact surfaces.

Some cautions are in order for agrochemicals, which, if used excessively or disposed of improperly, can threaten water supplies and soil.

Nations, especially in developed nations, are tightening regulations, requiring users to keep accurate records on purchases and applications to discourage waste.

The FAO also recommends that pesticides classified as extremely, highly or even moderately hazardous should not be sold or used in developing nations because farmers there “often don't have the training or the equipment to handle pesticides safely.” The FAO also admits, “Nevertheless, extremely hazardous pesticides continue to be distributed and used in developing countries and constitute a large percentage of the obsolete pesticide stocks.”

As of 2004, the FAO reported that Africa had more than 50,000 tons of obsolete pesticides and Asia had more than 6,000 tons, but the tallies do not include China.

It’s not unusual for US firms to sell pesticides classified as highly or moderately hazardous in developing nations. Though the US has not ratified the Stockholm or Rotterdam treaties, the EPA requires that any exports of pesticides or devices not registered for use in the US must be prominently labeled as such.

High-toxicity pesticides make up about 36 percent of China’s total consumption, reports the US Department of Commerce. China ratified the Stockholm and Rotterdam treaties, but Greenpeace reported finding traces of banned chemicals on Chinese produce in 2005.

China is not alone. Dotted throughout the US Midwest are drinking-water systems contaminated with agrochemicals.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development urges caution with pesticides and concludes a February 2007 report: “Onus of responsibility is on those who promote pesticide use to ensure appropriate technology – that will reduce amount of pesticide used, and reduce risk to operator, bystanders, environment – is available and practicable under conditions of use, and is accompanied with training to ensure proper use and maintenance.”

The FAO revised the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides in 2002 – and recommends many voluntary measures for manufacturers, governments and suppliers, such as monitoring residue in food products and the environment, promoting research into alternatives that pose less risk, participating in periodic product reviews and discouraging labels that imply products are safe, non-toxic or linked to increased profits.

Such measures are reasonable, but any contamination incident hands protectionists an excuse to enact extreme labelling or testing requirements. For example, country-of-origin labelling, allowed by the World Trade Organization, is considered protectionist by some.

The potential of agrochemicals to cause serious injury is not new, but an expanding population and decreasing water supplies add new urgency to the danger. Unless there is worldwide awareness of the problems posed by POPs and unless major exporters of pesticide like the US join the international conventions to stop their use, innocents around the globe will suffer, giving rise to protectionism disguised as safety measures that will hurt everyone.

Susan Froetschel is assistant editor of YaleGlobal Online.

© 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization