China's Food Safety Infractions Imperil Americans Too

China's problems with food safety are well-known by now. Some ghastly food stories that have come of Guangzhou markets and Chang'an vendors have the makings of a good urban legend: the 50 cent fertilizer-tainted pig intestines that killed a man, the antifreeze-sullied vinegar that killed 11. But a new report from Food Safety News makes it clear that these anecdotes, far from applying only to the Chinese, have the potential to crop up in America -- and may already have cropped up.

That's because food imports from China have been steadily increasing along with other imports. The total value of Chinese food imports stood at $4.7 billion in 2007, up from $1 billion a decade earlier. And according to FSN, the FDA inspects just 1.5% of all the food that arrives from China. This means that 98.5% of the food we import from China could conceivably harbor pathogens. Part of the reason for this statistic is that we assume that the Chinese government will take some of the burden of inspecting its exported food, according to the Foreign Agricultural Service, which explains:

Although all imported food products must meet the same safety standards as domestically produced foods, international trade rules permit a foreign country to apply its own, differing, regulatory authorities and institutional systems in meeting such standards, under an internationally recognized concept known as “equivalence.

The Chinese government has certainly stepped up its vigilance in recent years. Indeed, those found guilty of food safety infractions face the death penalty in the People's Republic. But there's no doubt that the country has a ways to go before its food system is completely safe; FSN says that Chinese pet food tainted with melamine may have contributed to the deaths of up to 4,000 pets in 2007. In short, it's important to remember that, though Chinese farms are across the world, Chinese produce and meat may well be on your dinner table tonight.