Country puts some teeth in dental product controls

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BEIJING (AP) – China is stepping up controls on dental care products, state media reported Wednesday amid international alarm over Chinese toothpaste producers’ use of a potentially toxic chemical found in antifreeze.

Countries in North and South America, as well as Asia, have recently halted imports of Chinese-made toothpaste due to its content of diethylene glycol, a low-cost and sometimes deadly substitute for glycerin. However, there have been no reports of health problems stemming from the product. China has no guideline banning the chemical in toothpaste, and the government says it is harmless in small amounts.

The toothpaste is one of series of apparently tainted Chinese exports that have sparked fears the Asian country’s chronic domestic product safety problems are turning into a global scourge. On Tuesday, China’s food safety watchdog reported on problems with nearly a fifth of products made for domestic consumption in the first half of this year.

A set of “strict certification and evaluation procedures” are being drawn up for oral care products by China’s Health Ministry and the China Certification and Accreditation Administration, the China News Service said, citing an announcement made during a national symposium.

The certification administration’s Web site said the new rules would “improve the quality, safety and hygiene of oral health care products.” It was unclear how the rules would treat diethylene glycol.

A spokeswoman for the administration, which oversees the certification of Chinese products, confirmed the regulations were being drawn up and said the administration had asked for public opinions last year. Like many Chinese bureaucrats, she declined to give her name.

Also Wednesday, China’s Ministry of Health announced a recall of two brands of diapers spot checks found to contain excessive fungus. Authorities did not say if the diapers, made in the northern province of Hebei, and in Fujian province in the south, and sold under the brand names Haobeir and Jinglianbangshuang, had been exported or if they had caused problems for any children.

Worries over the safety of Chinese exports began earlier this year, when the deaths of dogs and cats in North America were linked to pet food containing Chinese wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine.

Since then, U.S. authorities have also banned or turned away a long list of Chinese products, including toxic fish, juice containing unsafe color additives and popular toy trains decorated with lead paint.

Chinese authorities at first played down or ignored international concerns, and have reacted defensively by highlighting problems with imports from other countries.

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang accused the media of playing up the food safety issue.

and warned that frequent food scare reports could lead to consumer panic.

However, the government seems to have realized that bringing its product safety standards in line with those of its trading partners could help protect its future economic growth.

The state-run China Daily newspaper acknowledged Wednesday that Chinese food exports were at times rejected – not because the manufacturers violated guidelines, but because China’s standards were lower than those of importing countries.

“This is not because the food itself was of low quality, but because the standards we use may be lower,” the paper said in an editorial. “It is becoming increasingly urgent to raise the food safety standards to international levels.”

Most recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it would detain five kinds of Chinese seafood after repeated testing turned up contamination with drugs not approved in America for use in farmed seafood.

In response, China’s quality administration issued new measures designed to ensure the quality of exported farmed seafood, telling its local offices to “fully understand the side effects and major loss of the U.S. decision to the Chinese seafood industry.”

In addition to stepped-up inspections and quarantine, the agency said it would post the names of companies that violate regulations and ban them from export activities for two years.

Observers say China faces an even greater challenge in improving its domestic food and product safety record.

China’s food safety watchdog said Tuesday that 19.1 percent of products made for domestic consumption were found to be substandard in the first half of 2007. Canned and preserved fruit and dried fish were the most problematic, primarily because of excessive bacteria and additives, the agency said.

Though the survey covered many different products, it focused on food, common consumer goods, farming machinery and fertilizers.

AP-ES-07-04-07 1546EDT

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