US health leaders to go to China over food safety

WASHINGTON, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Two top U.S. health officials will go to China next week to talk about food safety after a series of health scares from Chinese-made products.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach also will open new FDA offices in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, the Health and Human Services Department said on Thursday.

At least four Chinese children died and tens of thousands were made ill this year from drinking milk powder adulterated with melamine, a compound used to cheat nutrition tests. Many countries began checking Chinese exports of milk and egg products.

Last year, melamine-tainted pet food ingredients from China were blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats in the United States.

Melamine, used in making plastic chairs among other uses, has been added to food to appear to boost protein content and has since been found in other dairy products, eggs and animal feed, prompting recalls of Chinese-made products around the world.

Two brands of Chinese toothpaste were banned in the Dominican Republic in May 2007 because of fears that they contain the lethal chemical diethylene glycol, held responsible for mass poisoning deaths in Panama in 2006.

In February, Chinese-made frozen dumplings contaminated with pesticide made 10 people in Japan sick.

Chinese-made heparin, a blood thinner, was blamed for the deaths of 81 U.S. patients.

And Chinese toys were recalled last year because of lead paint and tiny magnets that could be swallowed.

HHS said the Leavitt and von Eschenbach visit would help to address some of these issues.

"During this week, as part of an ongoing strategy to address the food safety issues in both countries and to share ideas to address global food safety, U.S. and Chinese government officials will conduct two workshops in Beijing," HHS said in a statement.

"This will include a discussion of the recent outbreak of foodborne illness in the United States related to fresh produce as well as the melamine contamination of dairy products in China. In addition, during this trip, the Secretary and the Commissioner will open FDA's new offices in three cities in China."

The FDA offices are meant to help start inspections of Chinese products before they are exported to the United States.

Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Vicki Allen