Last week CCTV reported that 13 commonly-used drugs were being encased in capsules made from industrial gelatin, which is hazardous to human health. As it turns out, some factories in Zhejiang were even using leather scraps in the production of their own gelatin. And not just for pharmaceutical gel capsules but also for dairy products like ice cream and yogurt.
Industrial gelatin can contain up to 90 times more chromium than the acceptable edible format. Excessive consumption of the toxic metal chromium causes cancer and serious organ damage.
There is an irony to this – drugs that are supposed to save lives were coated in a substance that does precisely the opposite.
The State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), the regulator, then suspended sales of 13 types of drugs last Sunday. They were all confirmed to have excessive levels of chromium, including 11 Chinese traditional herbal remedies and two antibiotics. And they were all made by Chinese pharmaceutical firms that had purchased gel capsules from small manufacturers in Zhejiang province.
This week, the drug regulator announced to much fanfare that police have successfully detained 45 people alleged to be producing the the poisonous capsules.
Meanwhile, Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu said on Wednesday that the government will improve inspection of pharmaceutical production. Then again, Chen also admitted that fixing China’s product quality problems in the long term will depend mainly on the ethical standards of the producers themselves, and cannot rely solely on government inspection.
Chen pointed out that these firms and their executives must do more to fulfill their social responsibility. It is a fair point, as well as an unusually honest one. But it will do little to appease Chinese consumers. Nor will the fact that, like many previous food and drug scandals, this one was first exposed by the media, and not the authorities.
Needless to say, consumers have also grown tired of the stream of revelations. Many are asking what regulators do all day, with some starting to call for punishment of the watchdog body for dereliction of duty.
Cynicism is widespread. “When you throw out one of your shoes today you may find them in your stomach tomorrow,” one internet user wrote on weibo, referring to the use of leather in the gels in question.
“In the future if I want a jello I’ll just lick my shoes; if I want a yogurt I’ll just lick my shoes; and if I have a flu, I’ll also lick my shoes,” another one swiped.
Beijing Daily reported that there are longstanding problems in the gelatin industry that may end up proving as serious as the melamine dairy scandal a few years ago. The making of toxic capsules is a hugely lucrative temptation. Wang Jingzhong, secretary of the China Chemical Industry Association, told Securities Daily that pharmaceutical gelatin can cost between Rmb2,000-3,000 a tonne to make. Industrial gelatin, on the other hand, comes in at a fraction of the cost.
Others wonder if the country’s flagship healthcare reforms could be partly to blame. Industry observers say that drug manufacturers are facing new price pressures because of initiatives launched in 2008 (see WiC11) which have encouraged provincial governments to cut prices of so-called essential drugs. With pharma companies now expected to compete by promising lower prices, the accusation is that the corollary of dramatically falling revenues is an increased temptation to cut corners on costs.
That looks a difficult argument to sustain. And it’s hard to disagree with Chen about moral responsibility. Ultimately, if pharma executives are ready to look the other way on gelatin boiled from old boots and belts, they should be seen as complicit as their suppliers in selling a toxic product.
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