Friday, May 11, 2007

Food Adulteration Update: Chinese Grain Producer Demolished Own Plant And Fled Before Arrest; Website Pulled Down

Well, Chinese authorities may have two individuals in custody--it was two when I last checked, at least--but it remains to be seen if there is even any evidence remaining for recently-arrived FDA officials to investigate, since one of the detainees was an owner, and he personally bulldozed the melamine-spiking grain processing plant himself last month:

XUZHOU, China -- Before Mao Lijun's business exported tainted wheat products that may have killed U.S. pets, his factory sickened people and plants around here for years.

Farmers in this poor rural area 400 miles northwest of Shanghai had complained to local government officials since 2004 that Mao's factory was spewing noxious fumes that made their eyes tear up and the poplar trees nearby shed their leaves prematurely. Yet no one stopped Mao's company from churning out bags of food powders and belching smoke -- until one day last month when, in the middle of the night, bulldozers tore down the facility.

It wasn't authorities that finally acted: Mao himself razed the brick factory -- days before the investigators from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration arrived in China on a mission to track down the source of the tainted pet food ingredients.

U.S. inspectors said Thursday the suspect facilities had been hastily closed down.

"There is nothing to be found. They are essentially shut down and not operating," said Walter Batts, deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) office of international programs.

Chinese officials caught Mao; after weeks of denials, he admitted that his company and another Chinese business had deliberately and illegally added melamine to exported wheat and rice products. I don't even want to speculate how Mr. Mao's, ah, confessin' state of mind overcame the greater devils that had him making his fortune shoveling melamine into food meant for American (and reportedly Chinese) animals and humans and then destroying the evidence. I'm sure it wasn't pretty.

Melamine producers in China have said that melamine scrap, a cheaper form of the chemical, has been widely sold to entrepreneurs who use it to fool farmers into thinking that they were getting higher-nutrient animal feeds. Among the apparent buyers of melamine scrap were Mao, head of Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development, and Binzhou Futian Biology Technology.

Liu Zhaoyi, 64, a farmer who lives next to Mao's now-demolished factory, recalled seeing globs of white and yellowish scrap, which may have included melamine, piled in the yard behind the plant. One season after rains, Liu said, water with residue from the compound flowed into his family's cornfields and killed the crops.

Few people in town, which has a large food-manufacturing industry, seemed to know what Mao's factory made.

An Environment Protection Bureau official in Pei county, which is a part of Xuzhou, said one of his colleagues had visited Mao's facility in recent years when it was processing yeast and wheat. The inspection did not turn up any serious violations, and neighbors were told to complain to a court or another agency.

In recent days, Mao's company removed wheat gluten from the product offerings on its Web site. It also deleted something called ESB protein powder.

Xuzhou Anying had advertised the powder as its "latest researched, developed and produced" item and touted it as "a new way to solve the problem of shortage of protein resource." Several people with experience in China's food industry say such powders are invariably made with melamine.

I was curious to see what changes Xuzhou Anying had made to its website, so I went to my bookmark file, and lo and behold, the site has evaporated (although the global trading portal Fuzing has not removed their page about the company). But I did take a screenshot when I visited the contaminated-gluten makers back on April 30th, and this is what it looked like:

And here is what the product page looked like before the site was pulled:

Potential customers could read about the now-razed business and its wares:

Our company is a multiplex technological enterprise with research, production, distribution, which exports biologic feed, feed additive, Corn Protein Powder, fresh preserved vegetables, and so on.

Oxymorons aside (fresh preserved vegetables?), what jumped off the page lo these eleven days later were the chilling phrases feed additive and Corn Protein Powder. Those, and the handy catch-all and so on.

One strawberry tart without too much And So On in it later, the FDA are chasing powdery ghosts in a foreign land while their Stateside colleagues stay busy issuing one Import Alert after another.

Also at Shakesville.

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