China is being pressurised by the U.S. government to improve the safety of it's food exports.
The topic has become a hot potato in the country following the revelation that a toxic chemical was discovered in imported pet food; this resulted in the death of some pets.
The Bush administration has called on senior Chinese officials to bolster the safety of food exports.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt speaking at what is being termed as a "strategic economic dialogue" involving scores of senior officials from both countries, said the recent events have highlighted concerns over the safety of food and medicine.
The safety of food imports from China have been questioned since melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers, was found in U.S. pet food this year, killing pets and prompting wide recalls.
Then it was discovered that pet food scraps were used in some livestock feed which for a time stalled the sale of some poultry, pigs and fish.
Along with other recent food scares in the States, this latest melamine incident has created concerns about other Chinese goods and raised doubts about how well the U.S. government is monitoring food safety.
The issue has also become a contentious one in the complex relationship between the two nations.
The U.S. wants more transparent food regulations and to be able to send U.S. teams to China to check conditions and the talks are expected to continue throughout the week.
According to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns the Chinese government recognises the world marketplace will penalise any nation, economy or company that is not able to establish a sense of confidence and reliability.
The Agriculture Department monitors the safety of some food imports such as poultry and meat, while the Food and Drug Administration regulates fruit, vegetables and many domestic and imported processed foods.
Experts say China presents problems regarding food safety as they do not appear to have any type of internal oversight which can be relied upon.
At present all vegetable protein imports from China are on an "import alert," which ensures they receive immediate inspection; the FDA too now checks all shipments of toothpaste from China after a lethal chemical was found in Chinese toothpaste sold in the Dominican Republic and in cough mixture in Panama.
However the FDA at present only inspects just 1.3 percent of the food import lines and food imports are growing at a rate of 15 percent a year.
While China has made moves to exercise some damage control with regard to the latest scare and other issues, many critics say China's safety concerns are a subtle form of protectionism and some have suggested that all food imports from China be banned.
In the last six months FDA inspectors have refused about 33 shipments of Chinese shrimp, because they contain a cancer-causing drug, nitrofuran, and thousands of shipments of Chinese food imports, from shrimp to dried fruits to spices, have been turned away for failing to meet U.S. health standards.
China is a significant customer and if trade from China is restricted or cut off exports from the U.S. will also be affected.