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Prickly lessons
2007/07/13

Posted to the web on: 11 July 2007

Businessday

Prickly lessons 

IT IS a bitter irony that consumers have been saved from ingesting unacceptably high levels of the toxic heavy metal cadmium in their pineapples by European food import regulations, which South African exporters have often criticised for being too onerous. And it is a dreadful failure of our own control systems that are supposed to prevent substandard and dangerous substances compromising our food security.

As it happened, we got off fairly lightly when the testing of products destined for Switzerland showed unacceptably high cadmium levels. While it is a blow to the pineapple farmers in Eastern Cape, who must bear the brunt of the damage, South African farmers and consumers should consider themselves lucky that no one had died as a result of eating cadmium-tainted fertiliser imported from China.

It is unacceptable, however, that luck should have anything to do with it. As the pineapple association pointed out, there had been a similar incident two years ago, which resulted in legal action, as is likely in the latest instance. The point is, though, that with food security, each entity along the value chain should be held responsible.

Because the fertiliser originated in China, it is tempting to blame that country for the latest calamity. The latest toxic scare comes shortly after Chinese gluten laced with melamine found its way into pet food and killed hundreds of dogs worldwide.

Concerns have also been raised over tainted toothpaste, toys and seafood.

Worse, perhaps, is that our own textile industry has been crippled by cheap Chinese imports made possible only because of China's appallingly poor labour policies.

China itself admitted yesterday that its food and drug safety administration was unsatisfactory after the former head of that department was executed for receiving bribes to allow poisoned drugs on to the market. But to blame an entire country or even just the business establishment in China for these mishaps is xenophobic and inconsistent with our own liberal culture.

The execution of an official for taking bribes may seem extreme to South Africans, but it does illustrate that the Chinese government is sensitive to the failures of its products in its global markets. This sensitivity is perhaps our most powerful defence against unscrupulous dealers, in SA and in China.

China said its officials had "shamed" the food and drug administration and revealed some very serious problems, but that it had plans to consolidate its food production and to tighten food safety supervision and inspection, including the quality of its exports.

To make our own defences work, though, we have to be much more vigilant and ready to prosecute those along the value chain in SA who are found to be negligent.

South African consumers also have a role to play. If we find the labour practices at a Chinese plant unacceptable, then we must simply do without those cheap goods. Although after the seemingly interminable consumer party that is the result of relatively low interest rates and cheap imported goods, which in no small measure has contributed to the booming South African economy, giving it all up may be hard to do.

It is clearly illegal to import substandard fertiliser or any agricultural remedy into SA under existing legislation, which places some of the responsibility with importers and local distributors. But that the legislation has become outdated (it does not quantify the maximum allowable levels of alien elements in the products) and that the enforcement of the regulations has been poor must rest squarely with the government; if we need to hold anyone accountable for defending us against dangerous substances in our food, it is with the food safety and quality assurance directorate.

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