Melamine scare keeps products off shelves

January 14, 2009 7:11:05 PM PST
An inspection process put in place to block contaminated food from china entering this country is now causing a logjam that could impact consumers and retailers alike.

The most important holiday of the year for most Asians is just 12 days away -- the Lunar New Year. All kinds of special foods are imported to spread good luck and happiness, and any product containing milk or milk derivatives is being held for inspection.

The backlog is causing some bay area warehouses to run out of storage space.

New Horizon Enterprises imports food products covered by the Food and Drug Administration rule that requires samples to be inspected.

"Our company imports a lot of cookies, biscuits, crackers and pastries. A lot of which may contain milk powder," said Jason Lam from New Horizon Enterprises.

The crackdown is the result of melamine being added to pet food and baby formula made in China. The contamination was lethal to infants and to dogs.

FDA labs are working as fast as possible. Importers are also allowed to send samples out for testing by independent labs. The cost is typically $1,000 per product.

The time-consuming inspection process is being felt at hundreds of stores like one in Oakland's Chinatown. Some of the imported goods are arriving a month later than expected.

Carl Chan is president of the Oakland Chinatown chamber of commerce. He says shopkeepers already are having a hard time. It will be even worse if they can't make sales during the new year.

"If they could not sell these products on time and definitely all this small businesses, it's going to hurt badly for Chinese New Year," said Chan.

The FDA was in Beijing last month to open its first China office, a step toward shifting inspections there before food products are shipped to the U.S.

But for now, importers say food can be delayed at the warehouse for one to three months, awaiting clearance.

"Here's a lot of time pressure because of the holiday season. Of course, we don't want to minimize the importance of food safety. At the same time FDA has to consider the business impact it has on all the importers," said Lam.

The FDA points out its work load is growing dramatically. It analyzed 30,000 products last year -- that's twice as many as five years ago. The delay is impacting importers across the state selling to hundreds of stores.