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Of nuclear issues and food safety

Updated On: Jul 20, 2007

Food safety and nuclear issues are not necessarily related but both issues have hoarded headlines in Northeast Asian news this week.

Pet food laced with melamine, cough medicine/ toothpaste adulterated with diethylene glycol (industrial chemical used in anti-freeze and brake fluid), honey laced with industrial sweeteners, canned goods contaminated by bacteria and large amounts of additives, rice wine braced with industrial alcohol, and farm-raised fish, eel, and shrimp fed large doses of antibiotics and then washed down with formaldehyde to lower bacterial counts and the list goes on; are all at the center of China’s trade storm with the US and increasingly the rest of the world as well.

China is not claiming that it is faultless. According to General Administration of Quality and Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine’s survey, one-fifth of all products made in China for domestic use did not measure up to safety/quality requirements. 75 per cent of China's food is now produced by small, private, and unlicensed operations that are difficult to regulate. China raided over 3,000 counterfeit food factories and discovered over 30,000 cases of fake or substandard food. Regulators have also closed down some 180 food manufacturers and now post the names of violators on their website to shame them. Two head honchos were executed, one (Zheng Xiaoyu) already carried out and the other with the sentencing completed. Cao Wenzhuang, in charge of drug registration at the SFDA, was sentenced to death for accepting roughly US$300,000 in bribes from drug manufacturers.

While it tried to put its own house in order and issued top-level pledges to improve food safety, China is also not sitting quiet against the barrage of criticisms and measures subjecting China-made goods to closer scrutiny. In retaliatory measures, China suspended imports of some chicken and pork produced in the United States after its own inspectors here found shipments contaminated with chemicals or bacteria. This would hit the United States’s biggest meat producers, including Tyson Foods and Cargill. Beijing has also attacked the international news media and American regulators for exaggerating or misleading the international community about the quality and safety of some Chinese imports.  It is also fighting back by challenging bans of its products, the latest over the Philippines food authority’s claim that the famous “White Rabbit” candy contained the preservative formaldehyde. The Shanghai candy-maker refuted the claims and threatened to sue.

The Director-General of World Health Organisation (WHO) has also come to China’s defence. She was reported saying that food safety is a big problem that both developed and developing countries struggle with, and China should not be singled out for particular concern over its food safety record.

Ironically, China may need to study the US model of regulation for improvements. The Beijing office of China's State Environmental Protection Administration has less than 300 employees, whereas the US Environmental Protection Administration has over 17,000. The good news is that for the first time China’s leaders are talking about the need for better regulation and Washington stand ready to help with offers of technical advice. The two sides will convene on 31 July 2007 for five days of talks in Beijing on how to improve food safety mechanisms.

While China is under fire for regulatory problems over its food products, its neighbor, Japan, a country famous for its obsession with quality is also under the microscope for the radioactive leak that arose from a deadly earthquake this week. The magnitude-6.8 quake that hit Niigata arising from some 17 km below the bottom of the Sea of Japan resulted in 10 deaths, more than 800 houses were flattened or damaged, about 1000 people injured and another 13,000 were homeless. 50,000 homes were without water, 35,000 were without gas and about 27,000 households were without power. Quality issues have arisen as 25% of Japan's houses do not meet 1981 regulations stipulate for buildings to withstand a quake of upper-6 intensity. More than 30 percent of buildings at state primary and secondary schools do not pass earthquake resistance standards.

What was in the spotlight in the recent earthquake, however, was the fact that the powerful earthquake tipped over barrels of nuclear waste at a power plant and it caused the reactor to spill radioactive water into the sea. It also triggered a small fire at an electrical transformer. Overall, a total of 50 cases of malfunction including fires, water and oil leaks, and pipes being knocked out of place.  The latest was a discovery of a fresh leak of radioactive iodine from an exhaust pipe at the plant. While the operator of the reactor, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) claimed that the leak was too small to harm the environment and public health, politicians took issue about the late revelation of the leak and for under-reporting the level of radiation.  "They raised the alert too late. I have sent stern instructions that such alerts must be raised seriously and swiftly," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo. "Those involved should repent their actions."  

This incident is also made all the more significant by the fact that Japan has 55 nuclear reactors, which supply 30 percent of its electricity.  The nuclear plant located in Kashiwazaki CityNiigata prefecture, is the world’s largest in terms of combined output and supplies electricity to the greater Tokyo area.  However, it is sitting astride a geological fault line.  The plant may now be out of action for more than a year for safety checks to be undertaken raising concerns that the shutdown would lead to power shortages. However, the recent earthquake has raised strong concerns in Japan over how quake-resistant the country’s nuclear plants are as a sensor in one of the reactors at the Kashiwazaki plant had shown that the quake’s intensity was twice what the plant had been designed to withstand. 

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki has urged the operators of Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors to speed up safety checks for earthquake resistance, a top concern in this earthquake prone nation.  The safety of the nuclear plants is no longer a domestic issue as in the wake of the quake, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reportedly advised Japan to do a complete review of its nuclear plants.   

In another nuclear issue in Northeast Asia which has to do with another set of standard, North Korea has shut down its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon while accepting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for inspection. In effect, North Korea has stopped producing any more plutonium to add to its nuclear material stockpile. Loaded with equipment, IAEA inspectors have arrived to initiate the lengthy disarmament plan, and rebuild a surveillance system. American spy satellites have also been activated to detect whether the reactor core is cooling.

"Yes, we have verified that all five nuclear facilities have been shut down," IAEA director-general, Mohamed El Baradei said. ''The process has been going quite well and we have had good cooperation fromNorth Korea. It's a good step in the right direction,'' El Baradei said, speaking in Bangkok ahead of an event sponsored by Thailand's Science Ministry. ''It's a complicated process,'' El Baradei said. ''Ultimately we will have to go and make sure the nuclear weapons arsenal of (North Korea) are dismantled. It is a very positive step we are taking this week. But we have a long ways to go.'' North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium fuel for eight or more weapons, in addition to the one or two believed to have been manufactured during the tenure of the first Bush administration.

Most importantly, this victory, with all due credit to China’s efforts, will give extra energy to the less hawkish individuals in the Bush administration, Mr. Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to counter the hardline positions of their colleagues in the administration took in the first term, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who prefer to stop all negotiations with Pyongyang and look for ways to topple and implode the North Korean regime instead.

The road ahead looks optimistic. ''If North Korea wants to denuclearize, all of this stuff is very doable,'' U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill told the AP. ''We have never had a quarrel with the North Korean people,'' he said. ''We have wanted to help the North Korean people and will continue to look for options, look for ways which we can do that.'' “Declaration is one of the early next steps,” Mr. Hill said inTokyo. “We would expect a comprehensive list, declaration, to be in a matter of several weeks, possibly a couple of months. We see it as coming before disabling of the facilities.”

Six-party talks are now taking place in Beijing to determine a date for completing the second phase of the disarmament deal to permanently disable the Yongbyon complex and receiving a full declaration ofNorth Korea’s nuclear arm activities.  However, there was a minor setback in the talks when Pyongyang slammed Japan for raising the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens at the six-party talks and warned that this could pose “another crisis” in the drawn-out negotiations. (20 July 2007)

Sources:

Nuclear danger (Straits Times, 20 July 2007)

No deadline for N Korea to end nuclear ambitions (Straits Times, 20 July 2007)

NKorea shuts four more nuclear facilities: IAEA (Channelnewsasia, 18 July 2007)

Pulling the plug on Yongbyon (Japan Times, 18 July 2007)

Flagging quake resistance (Japan Times, 18 July 2007)

China, US to meet over food safety woes (Straits Times, 18 July 2007)

Nuke waste drums tipped in Japan quake (AP, 17 July 2007)

China: A rising worry for West (Straits Times, 17 July 2007)

Radioactive water 'leaked' from Japan nuke plant after quake (Channelnewsasia, 16 July 2007)

Killing the Regulator (NY Times, 16 July 2007)

U.N. Confirms N. Korea Reactor Shut (NY Times, 16 July 2007)

Don't close door on China (Straits Times, 16 July 2007)

North Koreans Say They’ve Shut Nuclear Reactor (NY Times, 15 July 2007)

China Blocks Some Imports of U.S. Chicken and Pork (NY Times, 15 July 2007)

DPRK proposes military talks with U.S. (People’s Daily, 13 July 2007)