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FDA stops Chinese products at border for tests

The Food and Drug Administration has ordered scores of food products imported from China — including cereals, snacks, candies, chocolate drinks, custards, puddings, baby food and pet foods — held at the border until testing proves they are not contaminated with the chemical melamine.

The directive, issued Thursday, comes more than a month after revelations of widespread melamine contamination in China’s dairy industry. Unscrupulous sellers added the industrial chemical to watered-down milk to make it appear to have appropriate protein levels in tests.

The problem first surfaced in September, when thousands of babies in China were brought to clinics and hospitals with kidney problems. The outbreak was traced to milk-based baby formulas contaminated with melamine. In the end, 53,000 children were sickened, 13,000 were hospitalized and at least four died.

The United States does not import milk or baby formula from China, and no known U.S. food manufacturers use Chinese milk products. However, some Chinese products made with milk are imported. Most are sold in Asian specialty markets.

“The FDA has performed extensive sampling and analysis of a variety of products from China containing milk or milk-derived components,” and found melamine in a number of those products, says spokesman Michael Herndon.

Products on import alert typically face a one-month delay when they arrive at U.S. ports of entry. It can take a private lab several weeks to run tests and the FDA several more weeks to review those tests and clear the product, says Carlos Sanchez, import buyer at Beaver Street Fisheries in Florida. The FDA last year put import alerts on five types of Chinese farm-raised fish because of concerns about contamination with illegal antibiotics and anti-fungal drugs.

“You have an initial interruption in the supply chain, but once you get your shipments staggered to adjust for the delay, then it’s okay,” says Sanchez.

Melamine was also the culprit in the 2007 pet-food scandal in which wheat flour was spiked with the chemical to make it appear to be protein-rich wheat gluten. The tainted flour was sold to a Canadian pet-food manufacturer, and the resulting pet food injured or killed an untold number of dogs and cats. Chinese gluten must also be tested before being allowed into the United States.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., called the move by FDA long overdue. “It is disappointing that the ban did not apply to egg and fish products given that animal feed has been found to be contaminated with melamine.”

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