“Follow the money.” This famous line, written by William Goldman for the movie “All the President’s Men,” was the key to unlocking the mysteries behind Watergate.
If you follow the money, you can discover the motivation behind skullduggery. Who profits and who loses?
When it comes to food and drugs, following the money is good advice. North American manufacturers, looking to save money, have increasingly turned to China for cheap ingredients. The consequences appeared earlier this year when more than 4,000 cats and dogs died as a result of tainted pet food.
If you follow the money in China, however, you will discover that the story gets even scarier. The former head of China’s State Food and Drug Administration has just been sentenced to death for accepting bribes and gifts that totaled more than $800,000.
At last count, roughly 170,000 drug licenses must now be reviewed. There is a fear that corruption in the Chinese FDA led to many drug approvals without proper oversight. Counterfeit drugs are common in China.
Gao Chun is a Chinese whistleblower. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 10 years ago the drug company he worked for used an antibiotic (clarithromycin) made by the American company Abbott to win approval for the Chinese generic equivalent. Mr Gao quit and tried to report this illegal action and the bribes that accompanied the drug’s approval.
In China, whistleblowers don’t fare well. Although he gave the faulty pills to drug regulators for testing, they tried to destroy the evidence. His efforts to report corruption ultimately failed and he now works odd jobs to support himself. The questionable drug is still on the market.
Most Americans have assumed that counterfeit Chinese drugs are purely a Chinese problem. But what if some of those Chinese drugs were exported? Remember the admonition to follow the money! A surprising number of U.S. pharmaceutical companies buy raw ingredients from China. Why? Because they are cheaper in China.
We learned that Chinese manufacturers put melamine in wheat gluten. This chemical created the illusion that the gluten had a higher protein concentration, allowing the Chinese manufacturers to charge more for less. Even so, they undercut the price of many other suppliers for pet food manufacturers. That is why so many companies ended up with contaminated products.
No one knows whether any of the chemicals used to make pharmaceuticals sold in the U.S. were approved by corrupt Chinese regulators. It could take a long time to sort out the mess created by the Chinese FDA.
We do know that some toothpaste exported from China was contaminated with antifreeze (diethylene glycol). It reached Australia, Panama and the Dominican Republic. The U.S. FDA is now checking Chinese toothpaste shipments for this toxic chemical.
Paradoxically, it was this very chemical that led to the drug safety laws that govern today’s FDA. In the 1930s more than 100 Americans died because diethylene glycol was used in a liquid antibiotic preparation.
The FDA is still struggling with safety issues. Until it is adequately funded so that it can monitor ingredients from places as far away as China, Americans will wonder about the safety of their food and drug supply.