BEIJING – Chinese authorities are investigating the widespread sale of fake blood protein to hospitals and pharmacies, a practice that threatens the lives of patients, state media reported Monday.
A newspaper reported one death from receiving the fake albumin, but authorities have not officially confirmed whether anyone has fallen ill.
China has an across-the-board problem with food and drug safety and has come under increasing pressure from the United States and the European Union to improve inspections of exports. Within the country, mass food poisonings are common, with the Health Ministry reporting 34,000 food-related illnesses in 2005. In 2006, 209 people died of food poisoning, the ministry said.
A shortage of albumin, a blood protein that chronically ill people often lack, triggered a nationwide investigation in March into whether fakes were being sold to meet demand, China Central Television said.
The report centered around an investigation in the northeastern province of Jilin, where 59 hospitals and pharmacies were sold the unusable blood protein. It did not say what the counterfeits were made of but said they could "make a patient's condition worsen and could cause death." CCTV's Web site showed two vials of supposed albumin, the real product looking cloudier and more viscous than the translucent fake.
Albumin is a primary protein in human plasma that is important in maintaining blood volume. It is used to treat a number of conditions including shock, burns, liver failure and pancreatitis, and is used in patients undergoing open heart surgery.
"The harm could be very great," Chen Hongguo, head of the pharmaceutical section of the Jingyu County People's Hospital in Jilin, told CCTV in an interview. Chen said the hospital had bought fake protein from the Jilin Yatai Wanlian Pharmaceutical Co.
Citing a Jilin food and drug safety official, CCTV said the albumin was made at a cost of about 10 yuan $1.20 but sold at $176 per vial.
It said a salesman from the company has been detained but did not give any details. A woman who answered the telephone at the company said no managers were around and she was "unclear" about the situation.
Seven out of 36 batches of albumin tested by the Jilin Food and Drug Research Institute were found to be bogus, CCTV quoted the institute's deputy director, Xu Fei, as saying.
"There was no element of protein, so it could not perform its intended function," Xu was quoted as saying by CCTV. "They were through-and-through fakes."
Jilin government officials referred all questions to the provincial Food and Drug Administration, which said there was no spokesman available to answer questions. An official with the State Food and Drug Administration confirmed the CCTV report but refused to give his name or any other details.
Chinese authorities have in the past struggled with recalls following the widespread sale of fake polio vaccines, vitamins and even baby formula. Such incidents threaten both public health and faith in the government's ability to control crime and corruption and ensure safety of food and drug supplies.
Last month, the country's former top drug regulator was sentenced to death for taking bribes to approve substandard medicines, including an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths — highlighting the prevalence of corruption in China's quality control system.
The China Business News said Monday that the State Food and Drug Administration had seized fake blood protein from other provinces and regions including Shanxi, Hubei, Hunan, Ningxia, Qinghai and Chongqing.
The newspaper said the mother of Zhu Huazheng, from the eastern province of Shandong, had died after using fake albumin from Beijing Tiantan Bioproducts Co. Ltd. but did not give details.
A company employee was quoted as saying that no albumin had been produced since February because of a shortage of raw materials.
"Many fake product makers have seized the chance and sold bogus blood protein under our name. We are still investigating it," said the unidentified employee.
Telephones at the company rang unanswered on Monday.
Also Monday, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said sample tests of chili products and dried fruit sold in China showed that some contained high levels of preservatives.
Tests on 46 chili products from 38 companies showed 13 percent were unacceptable, it said.
"The products from large to medium companies all passed the test but those from small companies had problems," the administration said in a statement. The offenders were based in the provinces of Hunan and Fujian.
For dried fruit and vegetables, 8 percent of 24 products tested contained excessive amounts of sulfur dioxide, which is often used as a preservative, the administration said.