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'Total Recall' China-style

During my latest assignment in China, recalls have been all the news.

First there was the pet food, then the toothpaste, then Thomas the Tank Engine, and now tires.

All of these items have mostly low manufacturing costs and literally hit home because they are daily consumer products. The recalls have filled U.S. papers with views of China as a negligent factory floor and only helped fuel pre-existing fears of Chinese exports.

But as all is fair in love, war, and trade relations  – there are now reports in Chinese papers of U.S. fruit products that have been halted at Chinese ports and a couple weeks ago there were concerns about a shipment of U.S. pistachio nuts. 

Marketplace fuels issues
Of course, there are many who would argue that the United States does bear some responsibility for the situation here.

"Sixty percent of all China's exports come from foreign-invested companies, so it's not as though China, by itself, is pumping out all of this," said Andrew Browne of Brunswick Consultancy in an interview for NBC Nightly News.

Browne pointed out that market forces – often from the U.S. – are a lot of what drives the cost-cutting that leads to dangerous products. "The relentless pressure on Chinese factories to bring down costs, to shave pennies off of each product that they sell... that in part is driven by American-end users, by the Wal-Mart's of this world who keep pushing the cost of the price down to factories in China, but also driven by the higher costs of industrial inputs into the factories."

Not any easier on the China side
I can imagine the hesitations of thousands of American consumers who love Thomas and Friends train sets or their pets for that matter. But grocery shopping in China can feel a bit more hazardous, too.

Just the other week a local baker of German bread was reported to be using toxic substances with the wheat in his bread. According to reports "they soaked their uncooked bread in water mixed with sodium hydroxide in order to give them better color at a reduced cost." 

An hour and a half later I ran smack into a number of bread products for sale at my local grocery store here – clearly the owners of the store hadn't seen the small blurb I read in the English language Beijing Daily. 

I put on my regulator hat and felt obligated to warn people reaching for the bread.

But it shouldn't be just me running around notifying people in the aisles! For this and for the larger recalls regulation needs be seriously strengthened. Laws need to be enforced and not in haphazard way.

Global issue
The former head of the Chinese equivalent of the FDA recently got sentenced to death for widespread corruption in his department presumably causing the lax practices in the food and drug industry. Certainly that sentence sends a message, but will it be a deterrent?

It's not one country against the other – it's the global consumers' problem because if China regulators are successful, low-quality factories can always find another place of operation in some other country.

At the very least, the recent rash of recalls will focus people's attention enough to notice that quality and regulation matters in any country. The next time I go to the grocery store, I won't have to case the joint first. It's not something you really want to have to think about when brushing your teeth or playing a game of choo choo with your child.

See more about how China is addressing the consumer recall issue on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams tonight.