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Originally published June 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 3, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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China corners vitamin market

If you pop a vitamin C tablet in your mouth, it's a good bet it came from China. Indeed, many of the world's vitamins are now made in China...

McClatchy Newspapers

SHIJIAZHUANG, China — If you pop a vitamin C tablet in your mouth, it's a good bet it came from China. Indeed, many of the world's vitamins are now made in China.

In less than a decade, China has captured 90 percent of the U.S. market for vitamin C, driving almost everyone else out of business.

Chinese pharmaceutical companies also have taken over much of the world market in the production of antibiotics, analgesics, enzymes and primary amino acids. According to an industry group, China makes 70 percent of the world's penicillin, 50 percent of its aspirin and 35 percent of its acetaminophen (often sold under the brand name Tylenol), as well as the bulk of vitamins A, B12, C and E.

In the wake of a pet-food scandal, in which adulterated wheat gluten from China led to the deaths of thousands of pets in North America, and other instances of food and toothpaste tampering, China's vitamin producers are reaching out to reassure U.S. consumers that their vitamins are safe.

Whether that's true isn't clear, however. Foreign food-safety experts say China's larger companies have reputations to protect. The question is how they maintain quality control.

In this pharmaceutical hub, a two-hour train ride south of Beijing, managers at what may be the world's largest vitamin C factory said they're constantly improving quality control to keep pace with the tenfold increase in production this decade.

"We used to only comply with domestic standards. Now we must comply with international standards," said Liu Lifeng, an aide to the general manager at Weisheng Pharmaceutical.

Food- and drug-safety inspectors drop in at the plant from time to time.

But the inspectors aren't exactly neutral guardians of public health. They work for the city government, which is a part owner of the parent company of Weisheng Pharmaceutical. That kind of relationship between food and drug inspectors and China's booming agricultural and pharmaceutical industries is coming to the fore as an issue in the food-safety debate. The local government in this thriving city of 2 million people would suffer if it did anything to hurt the growth of local vitamin and drug producers, and local officials might be reluctant to admit that a public safety issue had arisen.

"That's a conflict of interest right there," said Kathryn Boor, a food-safety expert at Cornell University. "You really need a disinterested party involved in inspections."

Issues of food and drug safety ripple across China today. The former chief of the state Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, was given the death sentence Tuesday for taking $832,000 in bribes to let unsafe drugs on the market. One Zheng aide was sentenced to a 15-year jail term last autumn, and a second was accused in May in the bribery scandal.

A survey earlier this year said more than three-fifths of Chinese worry about whether the food they eat is contaminated or adulterated.

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Observers of China's food and dietary-supplements industry say many larger companies, such as Weisheng, are well-managed and obtain key global certifications.

At the sprawling Weisheng plant, uniformed employees bustle about on neatly swept walkways, entering production areas where assembly lines purr. Machinery seemed clean, although managers barred a visitor from taking photographs in factory areas.

"The industry in China is bifurcated between top-notch companies that are highly skilled and do all the right things, and the second- and third-tier producers, some of which are just sloppy bucket shops," said Peter Kovacs, a food-industry consultant based in Incline Village, Nev.

Foreign brokers concur that the low end of China's market has severe problems.

"Sometimes you enter a factory, and you say, 'I can't believe they produce food here.' It's dirty and the machines are old," said Jan Willem Roben of Vision Ingredients in Shanghai, a broker of food additives for export.

Since U.S. laws don't require food and drug sellers to label products with the country of origin of ingredients, it's impossible for consumers to know where food or supplements are coming from, not to mention what factory produced them.

Vitamins fall into an area in China that straddles the food industry, comprising some 2 million businesses that exported $2.5 billion worth of goods last year, and the drug industry, which has 5,000 companies. Cases of adulterated or mislabeled products have hit both food and drug companies.

Fake drugs to treat impotency and help with weight loss are legion in China. Some African nations complain of fake Chinese medicines hitting their pharmacy shelves. Shady small pharmaceutical firms have exported bogus anti-malaria medication to Southeast Asia, where the illness is prevalent, allowing sick people to grow sicker.

"We really believe they are criminals," said Dr. Henk Bekedam, chief of the World Health Organization office in China, referring to producers of fake medicines.

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