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Opinions of Monday, 3 May 2010

Columnist: Ennin, Baffour

Tilapia, Drugs and Toys- The dangers of the Made in China label

Ghana like the rest of the world has become the dumping ground of cheap Chinese imports. These Chinese imports include food, drugs and electronics. Of these cheap imports, food and medicine have been my objects of worry. Recently, I added electrical products to that list when investigators zeroed in on defective electrical wires as being responsible for the recent spate of building fires in Ghana. As cheap Chinese food imports decimate Ghana’s agriculture, one of the unintended consequences is the proliferation of tainted or unwholesome food items on the Ghanaian market.

Tilapia from China fed on human excreta and chicken waste As China feeds Ghana’s insatiable appetite for foreign food, the Ghanaian culinary plate now routinely includes shrimp and tilapia. Most of the shrimp and tilapia as well as other exotic fish sold in Ghana and in other African Stores in the Diaspora, are grown in ponds on small farms in China and Southeast Asia. If the menu on your food table includes shrimp, tilapia and other Chinese imported fish, this article may not be appetizing. Dr. Michael Doyle, director of the Food Safety Center at the University of Georgia has visited Chinese fish farms and what he found was shocking and despicable. What the Chinese feed the fish is disgusting, appalling and dangerous. Bacteria and viruses pose much greater threats to food safety than pesticides or genetically modified corn. But many people worry more about genetically modified grain. If many Ghanaians knew of the dangers posed by Chinese-raised fish, they won’t touch them with a long fork. Chinese raised fish according to Dr. Doyle are often fed a diet of chicken waste and human excreta. For most fish farms Dr. Doyle visited in China, the outhouse (public toilet) is perched on stilts above the fish pond. Yuck!! The tilapia that eventually landed on your lunch or dinner plate was fed human excreta from the communal toilet. When the fish is ready to be harvested, the Chinese feed the fish antibiotics to prevent the inherent disease threat. It's all pretty unwholesome, but is it dangerous? So far, no major food poisonings have been associated with imported fish in Ghana. The reason may be due to the way Ghanaians cook their food. Most pathogenic microbes in Ghanaian food are killed by the intense heat under which we cook most of our food. But will you continue to eat Chinese tilapia knowing that it was fed human excreta and chicken waste? I stopped eating tilapia from China when I came across Dr. Doyle’s research. During our years in Legon, a female student of Mensah Sarbah Hall accidently dropped her food at the Dining Hall. Before the Dining Hall staff could pick up the mess, a male student scooped up the meat and started devouring it to the dismay of fellow students. This student was given a new name “unwholesome.” He was greeted with cat calls, whistles and shouts of “unwholesome” everywhere he appeared on campus. If Legon students from that era found that meat unwholesome, I wonder how they will feel now knowing what goes into the fish they are eating at their dinner tables now in Ghana. Fish from China would qualify as “unwholesome!!” Ghana’s Food and Drug Board should start conducting random inspection of these Chinese seafood imports for microbial contamination.

Misuse of Drugs and Chemicals in Aquaculture There has been extensive commercialization and increased consumption of aquaculture (farm-raised) seafood products worldwide. Farm-raised seafood has become the fastest growing sector of the world food economy, accounting for approximately half of all seafood production worldwide. As the aquaculture industry chalks up this spiraling growth and competes with wild-caught seafood products, the use of unapproved animal drugs and unsafe chemicals and the misuse of animal drugs in aquaculture have shot up exponentially and this raises significant health concerns. The Chinese fish farm menu is a hodgepodge of unpronounceable chemical nomenclature- malachite green, nitrofurans, fluoroquinolones, and gentian violet-all of them unapproved. There is clear scientific evidence that the use of antibiotics or chemicals, such as the foregoing, during the various stages of aquaculture always invariably results in the presence of residues of the parent compound or its metabolites in the edible portion of the aquacultured seafood. Research in the US has shown that the presence of antibiotic residues in the food chain is the main culprit in the increase of antimicrobial resistance in human pathogens. Are these substances in the Chinese seafood imported into Ghana? Only God knows. We should however be all concerned by the long-term health consequences Chinese sea food imports pose for the Ghanaian consumer. The Ghana Food and Drug Board should inspect and test Chinese seafood for these carcinogens. So while Ghana’s hard earned foreign money finds its way to Beijing, diabolical Chinese businessmen are hurrying unsuspecting Ghanaians to their early graves. I’ve always maintained that it takes two to tango. Therefore, Ghanaian businessmen and unscrupulous government officials are equally palpable. The government should warn consumers against potential health threats posed by contaminants that may be present in seafood raised in China and marketed in Ghana.

If Chinese businesses will risk business in the lucrative US market and export consumables laden with dangerous chemicals to the US, God knows what they are doing in Ghana and the rest of Africa. Here is a roll call of the dangers posed by cheap Chinese imports to the US as reported by the US FDA all within the last five years. Is anybody in Ghana watching?

• The US Food and Drug Administration placed an “import alert” on Chinese farm-raised shrimp, catfish and eels, which were found to be contaminated by carcinogens and antibiotics. • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered the recall of 450,000 tires from China. The manufacturer, Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber, appears to have cut corners and costs by leaving out a key component that keeps treads from separating. • 1.5 million of the popular Thomas the Tank Engine toys were recalled; they were coated in lead paint capable of damaging the brains of children. These, too, came from China. • Before that, investigators found that a highly toxic ingredient of antifreeze, diethylene glycol, was also an ingredient of some Chinese toothpaste. The poisonous toothpaste had been distributed in prisons and mental hospitals in Georgia. • The same lethal chemical, sold by China as nontoxic glycerin and added to cough syrup, has killed more than 100 people in Panama. • In one year alone all the 24 toys recalled in the United States were made in China • a line of coffees ( Mr. Brown’s brand) and a candy (White Rabbit Creamy Candy) all made in China- were all recalled in the US because testing in New Zealand found “high levels” of the industrial compound melamine (an ingredient that is used to make plastic and fertilizer) in both products. Melamine contains nitrogen and can artificially boost protein level readings of such items as powdered foods, allowing exporters to charge more for what appear to be high-protein foods. Melamine also was found in wheat flour from China that was used in North American pet food and animal feed. The pet food contamination led to the illness and death of thousands of pets. Crackdown on deadly Chinese imports in EU In 2006, the EU warned the European public against the dangers posed to health and safety by fake medicines from China. Deadly fake medicines, including tablets made with yellow road paint and unhygienic pregnancy testing kits, are part of a tide of counterfeit goods from China posing a danger to health, consumers in Europe. EU investigators found heart pills coated with furniture polish and bottles of bogus shampoo which caused skin damage among five million items seized by customs officials at various European ports. The litany of Chinese fakes no longer involve imitation luxury watches but condoms, HIV and pregnancy testing kits manufactured under unhygienic conditions. Cigarettes containing sand and cadmium, with tar and nicotine levels exceeding EU acceptable limits by more than 75% and 25% respectively were also among the 75 million counterfeit items seized in Europe in one year alone.

Conclusion In Europe and the Americas, health scares have swirled around a range of Chinese-made exports, from toxic toothpaste ingredients to faulty tires, pet food and toxic seafood and drywall. How come we don’t hear about that in Africa? It’s because most deaths in Africa are attributed to witchcraft or voodoo and blamed on that old lady in the village. The Ghana government should fund the Food and Drug Board to begin bolstering its surveillance of food-borne illness. It is a fact that the government agencies tasked with consumer safety in Ghana are hopelessly outnumbered by the sheer enormity of Chinese imports. A de facto boycott of Chinese goods by Ghanaian consumers is not feasible or realistic. But it seems that some Chinese manufacturers – and the Chinese government – haven’t quite grasped a concept key to the survival of any enterprise: the return of a satisfied customer. In the meantime, my advice to fellow Ghanaians is to be reasonably cautious in their food preparation and general use of Chinese products. To the Ghanaian Tilapia Fish Farmers and other manufacturers, this is a golden opportunity to tout the purity of your products and promote the Made in Ghana label.

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