Opinion Columns & Blogs

Poison Fido

Should someone be executed for poisoning your dog?

China last week announced it had executed a high-ranking official for taking bribes to approve untested, contaminated drugs that killed 10 people. That a similar crook could be off-ed for adulterating pet food may seem far-fetched, but haphazard oversight and corruption involving Chinese health and safety standards are rampant. Killing 10 innocent people might appear to be deserving of capital punishment, but far worse scandals occur in that country with regularity. The same day U.S. newspapers reported that the head of the Chinese equivalent of the Food and Drug Adminis-tration had been executed, other stories described how bottled water, marketed and sold in China, often is untreated tap water sold under phony labels.

Food and drug scandals are everyday occurrences in China, although the one most familiar to Americans involved a rash of poisonings from pet food containing contaminated wheat gluten. Recently, Chinese toothpaste was ordered destroyed in this country, and last year dozens of deaths in Panama were traced to medicine made with antifreeze!

It's not altogether disheartening to think that white collar criminals could be executed for contaminating a product that resulted in harm or death. In this country, execution generally is reserved for murderers, but the deterrent effect of capital punishment on violent crime is questionable. Perhaps a better case could be made that crooked CEOs, shady accountants and others who have caused thousands of citizens to lose their life savings should be candidates for the electric chair. Unlike a spontaneous mugging or domestic killing, by its nature, corporate crime involves calculation, malice, aforethought, if you will, so it makes sense that a viable threat of execution would deter some white-collar crooks.

As it is now, even when convicted, such criminals usually serve time in minimum-security prisons, where they enjoy a better life than some of the folks they ripped off.

Don't expect things to change much in China, however. The culture of corruption and illegal corner-cutting is so deeply entrenched there that a few show executions of sticky-fingered officials aren't likely to lead to reform overnight.

In some ways, China's manufacturing industry resembles 19th century and early 20th century America's before muck-raking journalists opened their countrymen's eyes to abuses in the meatpacking, railroad and steel industries. The resulting reform movement led to many oversight agencies we take for granted today. As a result, when Americans buy groceries or dine out, we do so with confidence that ingredients are safe and that food preparers have followed sanitary procedures.

Perhaps the best measure of that confidence level is the outrage that accompanies the relatively rare occasion when the system breaks down.

What many of us fail to appreciate is that, over time, our health security has been undermined by elected officials, especially Congress and the White House. Politicians pledge to keep America safe from terrorism but fail to appropriate money to hire enough inspectors to monitor the rising tide of imported agricultural products flooding our shores.

Typically, we tend to focus on manufacturing jobs that have been lost because of foreign competition, but we don't fully appreciate that one reason China and other competitors can undercut domestic suppliers is that their producers don't have to meet the same standards.

Chinese officials announced last week that they would crack down on businesses that produce contaminated foodstuffs. With the Summer Olympic games planned for next year, they want to reassure the world that visitors need not fear the food. It wouldn't do to have a gold medallist drop dead during the awards ceremony because of antifreeze poisoning, would it?

If fear of international embarrassment causes China to clean up its food and pharmaceutical industries, so much the better. Given the scope of the problem, though, it's unlikely that we've heard the last of scandals related to food imported from China and other developing countries.

Also, we shouldn't forget that we've had our share of home-grown food crises. Remember the spinach scare a few months back?

In the meantime, voters ought to put food and drug safety higher on the list of issues to ask candidates about for Fido's sake, if not their own.