China Steps Up Scrutiny Of Food Imported From U.S., Delaying Shipments

Monday, September 17th 2007, 2:55 pm
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ China has sharply increased inspections of imported U.S. food, escalating a dispute with Washington over product safety and leaving American beef piling up in warehouses and delaying shipments of black pepper and other goods.

Authorities who used to inspect as little as 5 percent of imported goods now check every shipment of American poultry, snack foods and other products, companies and trade groups say.

``I suspect they are doing this to keep the pressure on the United States to relent on some of these (food safety disputes), because the U.S. is taking a very tough stand on Chinese products,'' said James Rice, the China country manager for Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat processor.

Chinese authorities banned chicken imports from two Tyson plants in June after salmonella was found in shipments from them, Rice said. But he said the company, which sells about $200 million worth of chicken to China every year, still was allowed to import from its 167 other facilities.

The stepped-up inspections are the latest volley after a series of large-scale product recalls _ from bad pet food to dangerous toothpaste and toys _ raised scrutiny of Chinese-made products in the U.S.

On Saturday, Beijing said it rejected 18.4 tons of American pork because it contained ractopamine, a drug that is used by U.S. hog farmers to produce leaner meat but is banned in China.

The United States restricted imports from China of five types of seafood in July after tests found unapproved drugs _ a move that Beijing criticized as improper and excessive.

The tougher Chinese inspection regime is forcing importers and retailers to adjust shipping and delivery schedules, although so far they say the delays have not harmed their bottom lines.

But the moves add to tensions in a relationship that is strained by China's multibillion-dollar trade surplus with the United States. Chinese officials have suggested the U.S. government might be using safety concerns as an excuse to block imports from China.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman declined to comment on whether Washington has complained about the increased inspections.

China is a major market for U.S. soybeans and chicken _ although there appeared to be no immediate effect on soy shipments _ and sales of citrus, beef and processed food also are growing.

It is unclear how much U.S. food has been rejected in China's latest campaign or whether the rate has increased. China's product safety agency, the Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, did not respond to a request for comment.

The agency, known as AQSIQ, said in June it would step up inspections of U.S. food for chemical or biological contamination. It cited the discovery of excessive bacteria and sulfur dioxide in raisins, dried oranges and health care products from several American companies.

Rice said the AQSIQ director, Wang Daning, told him last week that he mobilized every available employee to minimize delays for shippers, sending people who work at desk jobs to join the agency's 7,000 field inspectors.

``He said, `I'm under a lot of pressure. I have a lot of pressure now to ensure what's going to the U.S. is safe, and what's coming in is safe,''' Rice said.

Rice said all of Tyson's shipments are now inspected. Employees of the U.S. egg and poultry trade group and a Chinese importers' group gave similar accounts, as did employees of two Chinese food companies.

In Hong Kong, shipments of U.S. beef bound for China's mainland are piling up in refrigerated warehouses while they await inspection, said John Nam, program director in Hong Kong for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, a trade group. Nam said he had no information on the extent of the increased inspections.

``Over the past two months, we saw that plenty of shipments to China have stayed quite a while in Hong Kong warehouses, which means turnaround time has been lengthened,'' he said.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has seen brief delays in deliveries of black pepper and other imported groceries, according to a company spokesman, Jonathan Dong. The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer has more than 60 stores in China selling food and other goods.

``In a few cases, there was a few days' delay because of extra paperwork or whatever,'' Dong said.

Chinese grocery stores and importers said that so far they have seen little impact on their business from the increased inspections.

``We just need to arrange our schedule better and make more time for the inspection,'' said the sales manager of Shanghai's ID Food Center Inc., which he said imports nuts, wine, cookies and chocolate from the United States. He would give only his surname, Sun.