When I was at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the undersecretary for food safety, the Office of International Affairs was winding up a series of audits of a few Chinese chicken plants that wanted to export cooked chicken meat to the U.S.
As part of this very volatile and hotly debated move, the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) was in the process of developing a notice of proposed rules and regulations for the Federal Register.
Claiming it was all about food safety and the Chinese and FSIS could not be trusted to protect Americans, Rosa DeLauro (D. Conn.) added an amendment to a bill that had to be passed by Congress that would prohibit FSIS from spending any tax dollars promulgating rules that would allow cooked Chinese chicken to be exported to the U.S.
That boat was dead in the water.
The issue continued to surface occasionally, and the Congresswoman’s action appeared to be partially justified when China exported wheat gluten and rice protein to the US that were contaminated with melamine, making them appear to have more protein content.
Unfortunately, the wheat and rice went into pet food and dogs and cats died in this country.
Complicating the picture, discarded pet food went into feed fed to animals raised for human consumption, creating a food safety uproar led by those not wanting us to slaughter animals and process them into food.
So that is all old news, and why am I bringing it up today?
I am part way through reading a book titled: FEAR: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward of Watergate fame.
On page 275 Woodward has Gary Cohn, then director of the National Economic Council, telling President Trump that, “If you’re the Chinese and you want to really just destroy us, just stop sending us antibiotics. You know they don’t really produce antibiotics in the U.S.?”
A Commerce Department study he was citing showed that “China sold 96.6% of all antibiotics used here” and Cohn went on to say “we don’t produce penicillin.”
I was shocked and concerned, so I looked into the matter further.
Turns out maybe we don’t buy 96.6% of our antibiotics from China, but we buy a lot.
And China has products that go into antibiotics that are sometimes sole sourced from China.
Such as Star anise, the critical component in Tamiflu, the number one antiviral used to treat influenza.
China also is the sole source for the critical active ingredient in Levoquin, a fluoroquinolone that saved my wife’s life when she contracted Legionnaire’s pneumonia last year.
And the list goes on.
U.S. News & World Report ran an article in May 2018, titled “China’s Lock on Drugs.”
The report said China has “exclusive manufacturing agreements for drugs for anesthesia, cancer and HIV/AIDS.” It goes on to state that China is the “world’s only source of antibiotics, including the main ingredient for vancomycin”, often an antibiotic of last resort to treat bacteria that are multi-drug resistant.
That may have been a typo because China is not the ”world’s only source of antibiotics.” It is a huge source to be sure, but not the only source.
The report also mentions China being the primary source of ingredients in many other common medications used in the U.S. such as birth control pills, vitamins, cholesterol-lowering medications and antidepressants.
A book for further reading was referenced titled, “China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine” by Rosemary Gibson.
The book cites the huge numbers of lay-offs of staff and researchers by pharmaceutical giants such as Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.
The Chinese government subsidizes their industry so the move from U.S. soil to Asia was simply economics. But even though the companies are seeing higher profit margins, the cost of medications purchased by American consumers remains higher than any other developed country in the world.
I am not going to delve into the economics in a blog that is primarily supposed to be about food safety, but I did talk to a few friends in the pharma world recently, and they all confirm that this could be a crisis just waiting to happen and bring up some serious concerns:
- Up to 40% of the profit margin in drugs is going to the middle man who negotiates prices with insurance companies, Medicare, etc.
- If China does not like President Trump’s ideas about tariffs, especially steel tariffs, they can quite easily either stop or slow shipments of antibiotics etc., or raise the tariff on them that equates into even higher drug prices in America.
- If we were ever to come into a conflict that involved China, our armed forces could be dependent upon the enemy for antibiotics. (And before you laugh and say “that will never happen” mouth the words Vietnam and Korea.)
The industry reps I talked with did not seem to be too worried about quality control etc., but I am.
We saw the melamine incident kill our pets.
In 2008 we saw contaminated Heparin, a blood thinner use to treat blood clots, from China kill 81 Americans and sicken another 800.
There has been an awful lot of noise the last few years about antibiotics used in animals raised for food and what risk, if any, does that imply for antibiotic resistant bacteria in human health.
The National Institute for Animal Agriculture has held an annual conference dedicated to the issue for each of the last seven years, but not once was the source of the antibiotics used even mentioned as a risk factor as far as I know.
Of course, pharma was represented at these conferences, so some of the attendees knew all this.
Doesn’t anyone care, or is this is like the dirty little family secret no one wants to talk about?
Just say Chinese chicken and the naysayers jump out of the wood work.
Is it really that much more dangerous to eat chicken imported from a plant in China that gets an annual audit from FSIS than it is to depend upon a medication made in the same country?
Congresswoman DeLauro, where are you when we need you?