August 11, 2007
VOORHEESVILLE, N.Y. — Cole and Sydney Scheels represent the human face of growing U.S. concern over the safety of food imported from China.
The two young children, two of three triplets, recently became seriously ill with salmonella poisoning attributed to snack food containing tainted Chinese ingredients.
Their parents, Patrick and Elex Scheels, say they are still angry about their children's illness, which occurred despite their efforts to monitor the kinds of food they eat.
"It was terrifying and horrible," Mrs. Scheels said, recalling that her daughter lost 2½ pounds during her illness, a significant loss for a 24-pound child.
The illness was linked to Veggie Booty, a snack food manufactured and sold by Robert's American Gourmet Food of Sea Cliff, N.Y.
Mr. and Mrs. Scheels are suing the company, which recalled the product in June. The company declined to comment for this article.
The safety of Chinese food and other imports has come under heightened scrutiny in recent months because of problems traced to Chinese products, including pet deaths caused by tainted pet food, toothpaste that contained a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze, and mislabeled "monkfish" that might have been puffer fish containing the toxin tetrodotoxin.
President Bush last month set up a Cabinet-level working group to recommend ways to ensure the safety of imported food.
For the Scheels family, the crisis began in April when their daughter Sydney and her brother Cole, both of whom turned 2 last month, became seriously ill after eating the product, a puffed rice and corn snack food whose ingredients include spinach, kale, cabbage and broccoli, according to the company's Web site.
Sydney was sick for 14 days with symptoms including severe diarrhea and a fever that surpassed 105 degrees, Mrs. Scheels said.
Dr. Laura E. Staff, a physician who treated Sydney and Cole at her nearby office in Albany, sent fecal cultures for lab testing and discovered that Sydney had salmonella. The disease was identified as the Wandsworth strain cited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when it warned consumers not to eat Veggie Booty in June.
Sydney tested positive for 3½ months, meaning she could not play with other young children or visit her great-grandparents.
Robert's American Gourmet Food recalled Veggie Booty because of possible salmonella contamination in June. The Food and Drug Administration later confirmed that the salmonella strain found in Veggie Booty was responsible for a 19-state outbreak of the disease between March and June.
The food company said July 12 that the contaminated ingredient in the snack food was thought to be sourced from China, although it is not known whether the ingredient was contaminated before or after it entered the United States.
Dr. Staff said the fact that the children had the Wandsworth strain of salmonella linked to Veggie Booty indicated they caught the disease from the snack instead of another source, such as undercooked eggs.
Mrs. Scheels said she and her husband Patrick were "furious" when she found out how her children became ill.
She said they buy "high-end" food for their children, including organic foods, eggs from free-range hens and chicken raised without hormone supplements.
"We thought, 'we spend more money so that something like this wouldn't happen,' " she said.
Dr. Staff said that Sydney was "very sick" when she came in, but also said it is not possible to completely avoid salmonella poisoning.
"The question is, can you ever make sure your foods are perfectly 100 percent safe?"
"You just can't," Dr. Staff said.
China ordered a crackdown on seafood exporters as part of efforts to defuse widening trade friction over tainted consumer goods, more than a month after the U.S. started banning Chinese seafood on safety concerns.
The FDA placed a hold in June on all farm-raised shrimp, catfish, basa, dace and eel from China until the shipments are shown to be free of residue from drugs that aren't approved in the U.S.
Local inspection agencies must scrutinize and validate the accreditation of seafood exporters to the U.S., while authorities must toughen health certification and monitoring processes, China's Certification and Accreditation Administration said on its Web site.
Measures taken by China alone will not remove tainted seafood from the market, said Steve Dickinson, a partner at law firm Harris Moure PLC in Shanghai. The onus is also on U.S. importers to make sure they purchase seafood from reputable Chinese companies, he said.
"I don't think this is a government issue,"Mr. Dickinson said.
The size and scope of China's fish farming makes it difficult for the government alone to stop unsafe seafood from leaving the country, he said.
"My clients tell me this whole issue has largely been politicized," Mr. Dickinson said. It's unfair to cast China's seafood industry in a negative light when the problems were caused by several small and inefficient producers, he said.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.