General Mills, Kellogg, Toys “R” Us and other big American companies are increasing their scrutiny of thousands of everyday products they receive from Chinese suppliers, as widening recalls of items like toys and toothpaste force them to focus on potential hazards that were overlooked in the past.
These corporations are stepping up their analysis of imported goods that they sell, making more unannounced visits to Chinese factories for inspections and, in one case, pulling merchandise from American shelves at the first hint of a problem.
General Mills, which makes food products like Pillsbury dough and Chex cereals, is testing for potential contaminants that it did not look for previously, although it would not name the substances. Kellogg has increased its use of outside services that scrutinize Chinese suppliers and has identified alternative suppliers if vital ingredients become unavailable. And Toys “R” Us recently hired two senior executives in new positions to oversee procurement and product safety, mainly for goods made in China.
“We’re thinking in new ways about this,” said Tom Forsythe, a spokesman for General Mills. “We’re looking for things we didn’t look for in the past.”
A Kellogg spokeswoman, Kris Charles, confirmed that retailers had asked whether the company used ingredients from China that were banned by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, including wheat gluten and soy protein.
The company had not, Ms. Charles said, but Kellogg took the extra step of scrutinizing the ingredients that it does import from China, like vitamins, honey, cinnamon, water chestnuts and freeze-dried strawberries. It also screened its Chinese suppliers for links to the recent pet food recall.
The discovery over the last few months of tainted or defective products from China — including toothpaste, tires, toys and fish — has prompted United States lawmakers to fault companies for compromising quality in their quest for inexpensive imports and higher profits.
If companies do not improve their safeguards and more tainted goods are found to be entering the United States, the safety of imports could take on a bigger political dimension, the lawmakers said.
“Food companies have been among the most resistant to informing the public about their ingredients,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, who has been a leading Congressional critic of China. “Now that’s more worrisome because these ingredients are coming from an unregulated environment.”
No fatalities or serious injuries from Chinese food products have been reported in the United States, although counterfeit Chinese glycerine has been linked to at least 100 deaths in Panama. In May, senior members of the Bush administration, including the secretary of agriculture, Mike Johanns, raised the food safety issue with Chinese officials during trade talks in Washington. And last week, in a step designed to reassure Western customers, the Chinese government said it had closed 180 food plants and identified 23,000 safety violations.
Although they affect only a fraction of imports from China, the rising tempo of alerts, including an F.D.A. restriction imposed on Thursday on sales of five types of Chinese-farmed seafood, has called attention to China’s sudden emergence as a major agricultural exporter. Between 2002 and 2006, F.D.A.-regulated imports of food from China rose from just over 100,000 shipments to nearly 235,000. Experts predict those shipments will reach 300,000 this year.
The spate of recalls and the rising volume of exports have highlighted another worry: the increasing dependence of the United States’s biggest food manufacturers on China for basic additives like apple juice, a common sweetener, and preservatives like ascorbic acid.
These little-known additives form the building blocks of many popular staples in American kitchens, keeping fruit from turning brown or providing the sweetness in breakfast bars. Food experts note, for example, that China supplies more than half of all the apple juice imported to the United States, up from a fraction a decade ago.
Other critical but common additives have followed an even sharper trajectory, according to Peter Kovacs, the former chief executive of NutraSweet Kelco and now a food industry consultant. More than 80 percent of ascorbic acid, better known as vitamin C and also used as a preservative, comes from China, Mr. Kovacs said. Chinese imports of xanthan gum, used to thicken dairy products and salad dressings, account for at least 40 percent of United States consumption.
“This is a problem for the whole food chain, but it was a blank spot,” Mr. Kovacs said. “They’re doing it now, but companies weren’t testing these additives before.”
Although Kellogg and General Mills disclosed these additional steps, they were reticent to provide additional details. And many food makers are nervous to discuss what is emerging as an issue that could threaten the trust of shoppers in long-established brands.
A spokesman for Sara Lee said executives were unavailable for comment, while J. M. Smucker did not return calls.
Not every company is altering its approach. In a statement, the agricultural giant Cargill said, “Our practices, which include fully vetting suppliers and conducting supplier audits, have not changed.”
Like many observers, Mr. Brown draws parallels between China today and the world described by Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle” a century ago. That depiction of the meatpacking industry led to the creation of the F.D.A.
Other legislators, including Representative Rosa L. DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, are calling for the creation of a new federal agency to oversee all food inspections. Such an agency would replace the current system, which splits responsibility among the F.D.A., the Department of Agriculture and other agencies.
“We haven’t had significant changes since the time of ‘The Jungle,’ ” Ms. DeLauro said. “It’s time to re-examine it because this is about prevention, not waiting for someone to die.”
Fusing fear of China’s growing economic power with worries about food safety, politicians like Mr. Brown and Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, have made it clear that food safety is an issue that resonates with voters.
“We’re saying to business, ‘You better protect yourself because right now neither the Chinese government nor the American government is doing a very good job of protecting you,’ ” Mr. Schumer said.
But consumers are not sure whom to trust.
“If you buy Cheerios, it’s a brand name, but you turn the box over, it doesn’t give you the list of where the ingredients are made from,” said Michael O’Brien, 59, as he shopped at a Food Emporium in Union Square in New York, referring to the General Mills cereal. “It absolutely concerns me because you never truly know the origin of your product.”
For the companies, the problem is two-fold: figuring out exactly what to test for and maintaining control over their network of suppliers, even as they turn to China for vast quantities of imports at lower prices.
Indeed, the discovery of the industrial chemical melamine in pet food earlier this year — and the likely death of thousands of animals as a result — alerted the food industry to potential dangers in the human food supply.
“What I’m seeing is that companies have recognized the importance of checking their suppliers,” said Dr. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection at the F.D.A.
While the food industry has been in the spotlight lately, other sectors are also changing their approach to imports. Even before the toymaker RC2 Corporation recalled its popular Thomas & Friends trains because of high levels of lead, which can be poisonous if ingested, Toys “R” Us revamped its internal controls over procurement and product safety.
Late last year, Toys “R” Us hired Rick Ruppert from the clothing retailer The Limited as executive vice president for product development and global sourcing, a new position. Mr. Ruppert said the company has increased spending on safety and product development by about 25 percent in the last six months.
Toys “R” Us is also following the actions of its competitors more closely. After Target recalled about 200,000 Kool Toyz action figures because of sharp edges and lead contamination in November, Toys “R” Us discovered that the same Chinese company that manufactured those toys also made the Elite Operations figures in its stores. About 80 percent of the toys sold in the United States are made in China.
An outside testing company was called in to analyze the toys, and they were subsequently pulled from Toys “R” Us shelves when the tests confirmed similar problems. Toys “R” Us has also stopped doing business with the supplier, Toy Century Industrial Ltd. of Hong Kong.
More recently, after the Thomas recall last month, Toys “R” Us went back and had its own Imaginarium train line tested by an outside company. The toys proved to be safe.
“In the past we would have just reviewed prior test results,” Mr. Ruppert said. This time, “we just decided to take the next step: real-time, real-life review by an outside company.”
While the recent problems have raised concerns, it is still too early to know how widespread they are. But food industry officials sharply disagree with lawmakers like Mr. Brown and Ms. DeLauro, who warn of a looming crisis.
“The U.S. food industry has a tremendous track record,” said Pat Verduin, the chief science officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food makers. “We are learning what to test. I’m not so sure we would have tested for melamine in a wheat product two years ago.”