China agency denies claim of supplement cover-up

China's scandal-plagued food and drug agency defended itself Tuesday against media reports claiming it covered up problems with excessive lead in domestic supplies of spirulina, a popular algae-based health supplement.

One state media report said the State Food and Drug Administration's allegedly conflicting statements about the Chinese spirulina industry triggered an investigation into whether the agency was taking bribes. The SFDA didn't directly rebut or repeat the corruption allegation but defended its inspections of the supplement, taken as pill or powder.

A spokesman for the Beijing Procuratorate said Tuesday he was unaware of any such investigation but would look into it. Like many Chinese bureaucrats, he would only give his surname, Yang.

The SFDA has struggled to recover its reputation since a former commissioner was executed in 2007 for taking bribes. A string of food and drug safety problems since then, from shoddy medicine to melamine-tainted milk formula that killed six babies in 2008, further eroded public trust in the regulators overseeing China's food and drug safety.

The agency said it stands by the March 30 results of an inspection of more than a dozen spirulina brands that found only one containing excessive lead and arsenic. The problem brand was Conthealthy sold by the Xingfulai Pharmaceutical Group in Fujian province.

However, an internal SFDA document from February that was first reported last month by the official Xinhua News Agency had suggested contamination of Chinese spirulina was widespread and listed 13 brands suspected of having excessive lead, arsenic or mercury.

That internal report prompted Xinhua to order independent tests of spirulina and the news agency reported last month that six out of eight store-bought samples had excessive levels of lead, including one that exceeded national limits by 820 percent.

The Economic Information Daily, a Xinhua paper, reported Monday that the SFDA's apparently conflicting reports had triggered a corruption investigation by Beijing prosecutors. It said Economic Information Daily reporters had provided investigators information and evidence from their reporting.

The SFDA said Tuesday that its internal and public statements weren't conflicting. It said the internal document referred to unconfirmed suspicions while the March 30 was based on lab tests. It also said said algae has higher allowable lead levels than other food products.

Lead damages the nervous system and is particularly dangerous for children and fetuses. Small or short-term exposure can be treated, but high levels can cause birth defects, brain damage and other problems. Environmental sources and ingestion are the most common ways people are exposed.
A woman who answered the phone at Xingfulai, the company cited by the SFDA for lead and arsenic, said staff were away on business trips and unavailable for interviews.

A sales agent whose number was listed on the Xingfulai site said only one batch of the company's spirulina was found to have problems and had been traced to a supplier who used polluted water. He refused to give his name.

Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago currently residing in Beijing who is an expert in Chinese regulatory issues and the SFDA, said the agency is still dogged by the corruption scandal that led to the execution of its former commissioner Zheng Xiaoyu in 2007.
Though its significantly tightened drug inspections and improved its transparency, Yang said the SFDA remains understaffed and overwhelmed. He said quality control of supplements and herbal medicines has probably not been a priority at the agency and may have slipped through the cracks.

Yang also said it was good that state media were challenging inspections and taking the initiative to do their own.

"It just shows how this agency gets no respect from the leading Chinese news media, which in fact is quite encouraging" because it means the media is playing a watchdog role, said Yang.