The Safety Gap
Gardiner Harris writes in the New York Times Magazine:
In China, where thousands of drug manufacturers sell products in the local markets, profit margins are razor thin, and counterfeiting and contamination are common. In 2002, the Pharmaceutical Association, a Chinese trade group, estimated that as much as 8 percent of over-the-counter drugs sold in China are counterfeit. Contaminated products extend beyond drugs, as was made tragically clear this fall when four Chinese babies died and 53,000 were sickened by melamine, a toxic chemical illegally added to watered-down baby formula to artificially increase the protein count and fool quality tests.
Though no melamine-tainted baby formula from China was found in the United States, it has shown up in other countries. This is the latest in a series of food- and drug-safety scandals. China has in recent years exported poisonous toothpaste, deadly dog food, toys made with lead paint and tainted fish. In one infamous example this spring, Chinese manufacturers substituted a cheap fake for the dried pig intestines used to make the drug heparin, which is given to dialysis and surgery patients to prevent blood clotting. As deaths among those taking the drug mounted, the F.D.A. discovered the taint and banned the contaminated drug. In the end, 81 people may have died from allergic reactions, and tens of thousands around the world were exposed to danger. F.D.A. officials admitted that the agency should never have approved the Chinese-made heparin for sale in the United States; the agency, it turned out, had never inspected the Chinese plant making it.