China's drug agency rejects state media claims of coverup in lead found in health supplement

The Associated Press
April 10, 2012

BEIJING, China - China's food and drug agency defended itself Tuesday against state media reports that claimed it covered up problems with excessive lead in a popular health supplement.

One report said a bribery investigation was launched because the State Food and Drug Administration has made allegedly conflicting statements about the Chinese spirulina industry. The SFDA didn't directly rebut or repeat the corruption allegation but defended its inspection of the supplement, an algae that's taken in pill or powder form.

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 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.

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 lead, including one that exceeded national limits by 820 per cent.

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

The SFDA said Tuesday that the reports were not conflicting. It said the internal document referred to unconfirmed suspicions while the March 30 was based on lab tests. It also said said that 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 large amounts can cause birth defects, brain damage and other problems. Environmental sources and ingestion are the most common ways people are exposed.