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Commentary
Food: An Issue Of National Security
Louis Klarevas 10.25.08, 12:00 AM ET


With Halloween around the corner, think about what would happen if even a tiny portion of the candy distributed to trick-or-treaters was tainted. How many children would get sick? How many might even die?

Such fears are not unfounded, given the recent scandal involving nearly two dozen Chinese dairies that added toxic levels of melamine to milk products to artificially increase their protein levels. To date, the tainted milk has sickened over 50,000 children in China, killing four of them.

When people contemplate grave global threats, consumer goods don't usually enter the radar. In this era of unshakable globalization, however, the lack of adequate regulation of international trade might compromise security as much as, if not more than, terrorism.

In late September, Cadbury (nyse: CBY - news - people ) announced that a recall of chocolates produced in China, which are sold only in Asia's Pacific region, because they might contain contaminated milk powder. The sale of Oreos, M&Ms; and Snickers in Indonesia--manufactured using Chinese milk products as well--has also been suspended after tests raised concerns.

But the threat is hardly limited to Asia. The hazard is one of global reach, leading to recalls and bans in 16 countries so far, including the U.S., where Mr. Brown powdered drinks and White Rabbit candies, both imported from China, tested positive for melamine.

Tainted goods can kill--and not just a few people, but thousands. That makes quality control a national security issue.

Allow me to put it in perspective. In the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people died. Now take the recent crisis involving contaminated the blood thinner heparin. Earlier this year, hundreds of heparin consumers fell ill worldwide; over 80 died in the U.S. alone.

It turns out that over 450,000 Americans ingest the drug regularly as part of their dialysis regimen. There are tens of thousands more Americans who take heparin for other reasons. Imagine if just 1% of these patients died from contaminated heparin. That would translate into somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 deaths, twice the Sept. 11 death toll. And that's Americans only. How many more would have died in other countries?

Sound alarmist? Perhaps. But the numerous recent incidents show quality control is lacking in the production of potentially harmful goods--often with deadly consequences. Let's not forget the frozen dumplings containing pesticide that killed 10 people in Japan, and the cough syrup that contained a chemical used in antifreeze, which killed 115 people in Panama.

The products on this list, as it turns out, are exclusive to China. Yet as more large-scale labor markets compete for their share of international trade, the incentives to cut corners will increase and the temptation to overlook hazardous goods might become a more common occurrence.

As the case of China shows, developing countries--motivated by greed and a desire to increase market share--often fail to police their domestic corporations effectively. Even China's imposition of maximum melamine limits on food products hardly goes beyond the cosmetic. As such, the onus falls on importing states and international organizations to keep us safe. Only well-coordinated and vigilant quality control can abate the dangers inherent in international trade.

For one, national regulatory authorities must become more active in pre-export factory inspections. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was only able to inspect 10% of all foreign manufacturing plants last year that it felt warranted priority examination. In other words, 90% of all overseas plants that were marked for greater scrutiny slipped through the cracks. It is imperative to train a cadre of supervisors dedicated to foreign inspections and deploy them overseas with much greater frequency.

By the same standard, increased random testing--by both government agencies and distribution corporations--for contaminants upon the arrival of products from abroad must supplement overseas inspections. This move would catch the use of dangerous chemicals and toxins that are not detectable upon foreign visits.

In addition, as the problem often involves companies in the supply chain substituting adulterated components in order to reduce costs or artificially amplify a product's quality, an international system for monitoring global production networks should be established.

At present, the World Health Organization (WHO) monitors counterfeit drug production. But the international community must demand more, mandating that all companies that export products for human consumption, especially medicines, must report all their suppliers to their national governments, which in turn must file supply-chain listings with an international registry organization. This will allow governments facing epidemics to identify potential culprits more readily.

As a further measure, the authority of the World Trade Organization could be expanded to permit governments whose citizens fall ill as a result of such malicious activity to seek punitive trade sanctions against governments that knowingly engage in cover-ups, as China did in the recent milk scandal. If nothing else, the threat of future sanctions could work as an effective deterrent to government collusion in the trade of dangerous goods.

But arguably, the most important step is for political leaders to convince their constituents that they need to take a more pragmatic approach to national security, including re-orienting policy priorities and budgets to reflect reality. For instance, the U.S. spent over $100 billion last year to counter terrorism. Consider this: No Americans outside of war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan were killed as a result of terrorism in 2007, according to National Counter-Terrorism Center statistics; the number of Americans killed by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 was 17. By contrast, the FDA expended $10 million for foreign inspections in 2007. Yet the number of Americans killed by contaminated heparin in the past year was at least 80.

If national security involves protecting citizens from foreign threats, then keeping people safe from deadly consumer goods produced overseas must be a priority. In an era when international trade is a given, there is no excuse for failing to integrate quality control into national security strategy.

Louis Klarevas is a professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs.

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