Wed May 23, 2:05 AM
BEIJING (Reuters) - China called for cooler heads to prevail in a widening scandal over the safety of its products on Wednesday, accusing critics of exploiting concerns about specific cases to put barriers in the way of Chinese exports in general.
In the latest incident, the Dominican Republic has banned the sale of two brands of Chinese toothpaste for containing a lethal chemical responsible for dozens of poisoning deaths in Panama last year.
A company under investigation for exporting the toothpaste, Danyang Household Chemical Company, defended its product.
"Toothpaste is not something you'd swallow, but spit out, and so it's totally different from something you would eat," a company manager, who declined to be identified, said by telephone from the eastern province of Jiangsu.
In the United States, consumers have been alarmed by a spate of pet deaths blamed on tainted wheat gluten and rice protein exported from China, as well as reports of toxins and disease in other Chinese exports.
That has helped make food safety the latest flashpoint in often tense trade relations between China and the United States, who have sparred over everything from copyright piracy to Beijing's currency regime.
Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi is in Washington this week for the latest round of dialogue aimed at finding long-term solutions to trade and economic irritants, in particular the United States' frustration over its huge trade deficit with China.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns brought the food safety issue up with Wu's delegation on Tuesday, saying it was something that worried U.S. lawmakers and consumers alike.
BUNGLING IN BEIJING
The government-run China Daily, often used by Beijing to get its message to the outside world, said on Wednesday that Chinese products were generally safe and cheap, but admitted that authorities had bungled the crisis.
"Our quality watchdogs' contradictory statements regarding responsibility for the sensational pet food scandal was a shameful example of lack of professionalism," it said.
"To restore and maintain consumer confidence, our quality watchdogs have an obligation to demonstrate that Chinese exports are safe."
But the daily urged "all beneficiaries of Chinese exports to maintain cool heads amid possibly unfair allegations against Chinese exports."
"Stricter monitoring by destination countries is only part of the headache for Chinese food exporters. Their (exporters') greater concern is what they call groundless categorization, or a tendency to discriminate against all products from China."
Sun Jiong, director of the China Food Industries Production Promotion Centre, told Reuters he believed the main issue was one of trade protection, rather than any inherent problems with the country's quality controls.
"We have many agricultural products so we want to sell them," Sun said. "Then other countries try to practice trade protection and set up trade barriers. How do they do that? By saying they're raising standards."
In the Dominican Republic case, nearly 90,000 units of the toothpaste, imported from Panama and sold under the brand names Excel and Mr. Cool, were confiscated by authorities in the Caribbean country, the Dominican health secretary said.
Panama pulled thousands of tubes of the toothpaste from stores last week after tests showed they contained high levels of diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in engine coolants.