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      BEIJING - The United States opened a branch of the Food and Drug Administration in the Chinese capital yesterday, the first of several overseas offices that will seek to regulate the safety of food and medicine bound for American supermarkets and pharmacies.

      The opening follows a string of scandals involving contaminated Chinese-made products, including toys, toothpaste, pet food, Cough syrup, and milk. Later this week, the agency will open inspection stations in Shanghai and Guangzhou; in the coming months, it plans to establish offices in India, Latin America, and Europe.

      Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt, who traveled to China to preside over the ribbon cuttings, said the overseas offices would ensure the safety and quality of goods that make up 15 percent of the food Americans consume.

      The FDA commissioner, Andrew von Eschenbach, is also in China for the openings, which took months of negotiations with the government. "A permanent FDA presence in China will help us address the challenges presented by globalization," he said.

      The United States imported more than $321 billion worth of goods from China last year, and Leavitt acknowledged that it is "clear you cannot inspect everything."

      He said the goal of the new offices was to ensure the safety and quality of goods "at the point of manufacture."

      All three outlets will work with Chinese counterpart agencies to inspect products bound for the United States. They will also certify third-party inspectors who can approve the quality of exports.

      Until now, FDA inspections have been disorganized, inefficient, and ineffective, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

      "FDA's oversight and enforcement efforts have not kept pace with the growing number of food firms," the GAO report said. "As a result, FDA has little assurance that companies comply with food-labeling laws and regulations."

      The US Department of Agriculture is charged with monitoring the safety of imported meat, poultry, and eggs, which make up about 20 percent of the American food supply. The FDA is responsible for the other 80 percent - virtually all other foods, Vitamins, supplements, and pharmaceuticals, as well as medical equipment. About 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States are imported, as are three-quarters of all seafood.

      The opening of the offices comes less than a week after the FDA ordered a wide range of Chinese-made products held at the US border, citing possible contamination from the industrial chemical melamine. The products, which include candies, chocolates, and snacks, are made with milk or milk powder.

      Beijing has objected to the FDA measures, saying the products have been certified by Chinese inspectors under new, stricter measures.

      November 24, 2008


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