ACCORDING to a popular joke about China's poor food safety controls, every Chinese is a chemist by "training."
We are unaware of the amazing variety of additives that we have ingested since birth, until are alerted that they damage our health. Over time, as new names are added to the blacklist of banned additives, we have lost count as well as our grasp of kitchen chemistry.
The public is said to be so inured to food safety risks that efforts to raise awareness appear futile. What's worse, the clear comeback of banned chemicals is chipping away at what little faith we have in the quality monitoring system.
The recent pork mayhem engulfing Jiyuan Shuanghui Co, a renowned domestic meat processor, is a powerful reminder of the danger that has never left our tables.
Sample tests showed Shuanghui meat products contained clenbuterol, the banned drug fed to pigs to make them grow more lean meat and thus make them more profitable. An excessive amount of clenbuterol can cause nausea, muscle spasms and even death.
Clenbuterol, a term familiar to amateur "food scientists," made its debut 10 years ago, when a spate of poisoned pork cases led China to ban it in animal feed. Yet in the ensuing years the government has been fighting a losing battle to eradicate it from household farms, where widespread use has persisted.
As the probe deepens into the tainted pork scandal, 29 people in Henan Province, where Shuanghui is headquartered, have been detained for allegedly using or trading in clenbuterol. Meanwhile, 19 quality inspection officials have been disciplined for dereliction of duty.
As in previous food safety scandals, those punished for the tainted pork are but small fry sacrificed to placate the public. Given the extent of the contamination, there is good reason to believe the ongoing investigation will ensnare more people.
One reason clenbuterol-laced pork can pass toxicity tests is that it now exists in subtler forms. Its substitutes ractopamine and salbutamol are hard to detect and can be easily synthesized in one's own backyard, making it impossible for watchdogs to stem their flow into the market at the very early stage.
That said, they regulators are not immune to censure. The system is riddled with loopholes that can be exploited. For example, the percentage of random official checks on live porkers, at 2 percent, is widely criticized as being too low to uncover systemic frauds. In response, many provincial authorities have raised the rate to more than 5 percent and promised to extend inspection to cover herds with fewer than 50 swine.
Officials' tardiness, or laziness, pales into insignificance compared with their collaboration with unscrupulous pork traders. Many "pigs on steroids," as they came to be known, reportedly tested negative for clenbuterol because their raisers had submitted human urine for testing, although this trick should've been easy to expose; to obtain the paperwork required for business, dishonest pig farmers bribed inspectors with as little as 2 yuan (30 US cents) a head.
As we know from frequent past experience, behind these incidents are not just a few bad apples, but vast corrosion of morality and social responsibility.
Premier Wen Jiabao created quite a stir when he said in February that businessmen ought to "thicken their moral blood."
However, the pork scare hints at bigger troubles than lax oversight or "thin moral blood" of a few firms.
The shakeup of the meat-packing industry comes at a time when China's consumption of pork, the nation's staple meat, is rising rapidly. Chinese on average ate 39.6 kilograms of pork in 2006, almost double the weight in 1990. This figure had climbed to 43 kilograms last year - and is still growing.
Western diets, which contain more meat and dairy products, have gained popularity in China due to the myth that animal protein is better than plant protein (such as soybeans). It is also a myth believed by many in China that eating more animal protein can improve genes, thus resulting in better-muscled children better suited to athletic competition.
While China was once a largely vegetarian nation, the growing appetite for meat has wide-ranging implications for agriculture and possibly global climate change (livestock "emissions" contain methane gas).
The recent meat safety crisis clearly demonstrates the potentially deadly problem of a carnivorous society and dependence on meat - when pork production cannot keep pace with our gluttony, greedy producers turn to toxic additives.