The next time you reach for a vitamin C tablet, you may want to rethink it. According to recent industry reports, 90% of all vitamin C sold in the U.S. is manufactured in China. China also produces half of all aspirin, 70% of penicillin, 35% of acetaminophen (most commonly known as Tylenol), and the majority of vitamins A, C, E, and B-12.
This isn’t to say that all goods, or even all vitamins for that matter, made in China are inferior or unsafe, but in light of past toothpaste and food contamination scandals, and particularly considering the recent wheat gluten scare — in which thousands of beloved pets were sickened or died due to contaminated wheat gluten imported from China — an intensive investigation into the matter may be worthwhile. While residents of Texas and the rest of the U.S. can take for granted that their processing facilities are, more or less, properly inspected, and that, by the time the food product hits the open market in Austin, Dallas, Houston, anywhere else in Texas (or any other part of the country) it’s relatively safe, we cannot necessarily assume that about foreign facilities. No one finds this reassuring — from health insurance companies, to the average Joe just trying to get over the flu.
The consistent application and enforcement of safety regulations in Chinese manufacturing facilities is the main concern. While some food and vitamin processing plants in China are “highly skilled and do all the right things…(some) are just sloppy bucket shops,” warns Peter Kovacs, a food industry consultant based in Incline Village, Nevada.
Scandals don’t help the situation, either. Phony Chinese anti-malaria medication being exported to Southeast Asia is not unheard of, nor is the distribution of fake drugs to treat impotence. Similar incidences have been reported in the exportation of powerful Chinese herbs, such as Ma Huang. When used properly, Ma Huang is an effective treatment for asthma, but as it is more or less natural ephedra, its dosage must be carefully regulated by professionals — not used haphazardly as a weight loss aide and put on every supermarket shelf. Worse, former chief of the Chinese Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, was recently sentenced to death after being convicted of accepting bribes equivalent to nearly $1,000,000 in exchange for allowing the release of unsafe drugs.
Chinese inspectors often experience conflicts of interest, which could be a major contributing factor, as in the case of Weisheng Pharmaceutical Company. Weisheng is the largest producer of vitamin C in the world, manufacturing 30,000 tons a year. Wiith such a huge facility, any average American would expect a proper regimen of inspections and reporting to occur. But inspectors assigned to the plant are, in fact, workers employed by a city that is part-owner of Weisheng’s parent company. For such an inspector to return a bad report on Weisheng could be trouble, indeed.
And, while American industry workers report that, from all appearances, the Weisheng facility appears to be clean and well-maintained, the conflict of interest in enforcing any kind of regulation is apparent.
We could take a page from the Boston Tea Party, dump the vitamins and drugs overboard, and simply refuse to buy anymore…except that Americans have no way of knowing our products’ place of origin. Current labeling laws don’t require companies to disclose the country from which they received their ingredients, let alone from which company. While all this may explain the amazingly, suspiciously cheap prices of certain vitamins in recent years, it doesn’t do much to reassure one that our products — products we believe will enhance our health — are even safe. How could we, when we have no way of knowing whether our drugs and vitamins came from the “sloppy bucket shops,” or the clean, maintained facilities? Personally, I’d rather not take the penicillin if I’m not sure whether or not it has mold on it — or worse.
Solutions? Few at the moment, unfortunately. Eat well, for one. The better you keep up on your diet, the fewer vitamins you’ll need and, considering recent reports that the nutrient value of our crops is going down, you may want to buy organic. Few Western doctors prescribe penicillin anymore as a first choice, so that’s good news, and natural analgesics are available for minor pain, like headaches and sore muscles.
In short: take care of yourself, and there will be less need for drugs or vitamins of any kind. Write Congress and the Food and Drug Administration, and let them know this situation is unacceptable. Especially for those with children, or who have chronic conditions, this is particularly disconcerting. In other words, in the face of foreign exploitation, take the great traditions of America and start applying them. Stop buying products you’re unsure of, at least as much as possible, and start using the democratic process to protest. So many policies become objectionable simply because we don’t, well, object.
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