Readers question the safety of Chinese imports

Former schoolteacher Maureen Gayle wanted to add eight place settings to her family china collection that she originally purchased more than 50 years ago.

When the Franciscan Desert Rose china by Wedgwood arrived, she saw that the new dinnerware was a poor match to her original set. The painted patterns were not nearly as detailed.

She turned the pieces over and saw three words:

Made in China.

"I am very worried," she said. "I know there's lead in some ceramic paint."

Lynn Breaux, a retired military officer who has a doctorate in public health, saw the same three words on the label of the Milk-Bone Two-Toned Mini Knotted Bones his wife had bought for their dogs, Charlotte and Scooter the Magnificent.

Breaux remembers when some pet treats made in China were recalled in 2007 because they were tainted with melamine. He decided to call the consumer information number on the box and ask whether the treats are safe.

The first time, he left a message. No response. He left more messages, but nobody ever called him back, he says. He turned to The Watchdog.

"I'd like to know about these dog bones," he said.

As a dog lover, I worry about the safety of the products I buy for Saige, my loving chocolate Lab. I called the number Breaux gave me. Someone picked up right away.

The staffer said she represented Pet Brands, which makes rawhide and bones, among other products. I told her about Breaux's concerns.

"I can tell you they are safe," she said. "I tell customers that our products are tested by a couple of independent labs, and we have to pay for that test."

She said she would ask an executive to call me, but no one did.

However, I found several sources that can give pet owners the latest information on product safety.

First and most important, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for monitoring pet products, as well as dinnerware sets.

"Pet food products from certain companies in China have been placed on the FDA's Import Alert list, meaning they will be confiscated at ports of entry," FDA spokesman Ira R. Allen said.

"There are no recent confirmed cases of adverse effects from dog treats made in China," he added.

The FDA maintains several Web sites that offer the latest information on product recalls. So, too, does the American Veterinarian Medical Association, which posts the latest alerts on its Web site and its Twitter feed for vets and pet owners. Those would be good sites to bookmark and check regularly.

Ceramic ware from other countries is routinely monitored at ports of entry for lead and cadmium leaching, Allen said.

The FDA reached an agreement with China in 1999 about standards for ceramics intended for U.S. import. But it turns out that pottery from countries that do not have standards can cause problems. The FDA looks at ceramics already in the U.S., too.

"Pottery made in small production settings or by craft potters tend to be more problematic for leaching lead into food because these producers are less likely to have adequate equipment," the FDA spokesman said.

Home test kits that check for lead on surfaces such as pottery and also in paint and water are available for as little as $10 at hardware stores and elsewhere. Many of these promise immediate results. That's what I would recommend for Gayle and her eight new settings.

Carolyn Lucas is an expert on antique china who owns Dishes From the Past near the Fort Worth Cultural District. She says that updated versions of traditional sets often look different from the original.

"They're made differently. They probably don't have the same glazes. That's why we're in business," she said. "People can come here and get the older china, and it will match what they have."

Her advice on handling fears of lead content in modern china sets? She likes the idea of using a home test kit. But she says she doesn't believe that eating off these plates poses a health risk. To be safe, though, she advises against storing food on them.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

Twitter @DaveLieber