Bitter pill to swallow

Updated: 2012-04-17 14:43

(China Daily)

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It seems that even what is good for us is bad for us this time, as we have been taking our medicine blissfully unaware that the gelatin capsules we swallow contain a carcinogen used in leather tanning agents.

The scandal exposed by the media on April 13, no doubt ruined many people's appetites over the weekend, as it was revealed that some pharmaceutical companies, including some nationally famous ones, used gelatin made from waste leather scraps.

Tests conducted by the Chinese Academy of Inspection and Quarantine found that sample capsules from nine companies contained chromium in excess of the country's standard of 2 milligrams per kilogram and one even contained 90 times the permitted level.

One of the famous drug companies had the audacity to defend its chromium-rich sample by claiming it was produced before chromium became a test item.

Comparable to the melamine scandal that rocked the dairy industry in 2008, this is not an isolated incident but an industrial malpractice, involving gelatin makers in Fucheng county in Hebei province and capsule makers in Xinchang county in Zhejiang province. One gelatin producer in Fucheng said his workshop can generate and sell about 1,000 tons of cheap gelatin a year to clients in Zhejiang.

Although no deaths have yet been linked with the capsules, that does not mean that the capsules are harmless and those responsible can rest easy. The question, as ever, is why the industry watchdog was the last to bark?

The State Food and Drug Administration issued an urgent notice on Apr 16 suspending the sales and use of 13 capsules, a belated action now familiar to all after a succession of health-related scandals in recent years.

The dirty gelatin chain in Fucheng was actually exposed by the media as early as 2004, when reporters found the dirty gelatin was used by local food companies. A nationwide campaign targeting industrial gelatin soon followed. But journalists following up the campaign in 2009 found that the lucrative and dangerous industry had revived. How did the illegal gelatin businesses manage to survive and prosper?

The Chinese Pharmacopoeia sets a clear standard for capsules, and drug producers are only allowed to purchase capsules from licensed manufacturers.

Once again it is necessary to ask the relevant watchdogs and the food and drug administration to fulfill their responsibilities.