Food safety scandals recur despite efforts to ban toxins

By Zhang Yunlong
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, December 31, 2011
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 [By Zhou Tao/Shanghai Daily]

 [By Zhou Tao/Shanghai Daily]

The Year of the Dragon begins on January 23, and now is the time for many Chinese to do the pre-holiday shopping that will reward their families for a year of work.

However, 31-year-old Winnie, a new mother in Beijing, is uneasy and particular about buying food over fears of unsafe products.

"Sure, the product labels say they are safe and nutritious, but who actually knows?" she said, hinting at her disappointment with food producers as well as inspection authorities.

After years of food scandals - including melamine-tainted infant formula, pork adulterated with clenbuterol, and "swill" cooking oil recycled from leftovers in restaurant kitchens - China is finding it difficult to reassure the public about food safety.

China introduced a far-reaching food safety law in 2009 after a major scandal involving melamine-tainted infant formula killed at least six babies and sickened 300,000 others in 2008, sending chills throughout the nation. Two people were executed for their roles in the scandal.

But milk products contaminated by the toxic chemical have emerged again and again since the 2008 scandal, continuing to grab headlines.

According to a ministry regulation that took effect in April, China set the tolerable maximum of melamine in infant foods at 1 milligram per kilogram and other foods at 2.5 mg per kg, and banned the intentional addition of the chemical into food products.

Pork adulterated with the drug clenbuterol, illegally used in feed to produce more muscle and less fat, is also a recurring problem with a wide-reaching impact, as pork accounts for around two-thirds of the meat consumed by Chinese.

A major pork contamination scandal hit China this spring, prompting a crackdown on the illegal use of clenbuterol, which can cause heart palpitations and be fatal to humans.

Two main culprits, who made around US$1 million by producing and selling more than 2,700 kg of clenbuterol, were each given death sentences with reprieve and life imprisonment.

Of the 113 people penalized over the tainted pork scandal, 77 were government employees. They were held accountable for dereliction of duty and abuse of power in inspection practices.

In August, Chinese police launched a nationwide fight on gutter oil, or oil illegally made by reprocessing waste oil from restaurants, which is marketed and re-used as cooking oil by profiteers.

The latest official figures showed that 60,000 tons of suspicious oil had been recovered in the months-long campaign, during which 60 major illegal networks were broken up and more than 700 suspects arrested nationwide.

The health ministry is seeking public input for new ways to detect gutter oil, as some scholars have warned that profiteers are already sophisticated enough to fool inspection technology with their illegal wares.

In addition to national efforts to stamp out gutter oil sources, the ministry recently introduced a draft rule proposing a tracking system for the disposal of kitchen waste by catering businesses.

Chinese leaders have issued repeated calls for food safety. In a recent written instruction, Vice Premier Li Keqiang called for "more forceful measures" in fighting food safety crimes, a move intended to boost consumer confidence.

Roadside food vendors, small restaurants and a community-based pork shops all operate near Winnie's home in the center of Beijing, but Winnie said her family seldom "ventures" to eat or buy meat in their neighborhood.

They prefer to walk about two blocks to eat in chain restaurants and buy food at a huge supermarket, which they believe are "relatively safer."

Reasons and ways

Despite China's escalating efforts to create a modern food inspection system, food safety remains a major public concern for many reasons.

Kato Yoshikazu, a 27-year-old commentator who has lived in China for the past eight years, wonders why some people remain in the gutter oil business even though they understand it is illegal, risky, immoral and unethical.

"It is a deep-level structural dilemma," he wrote in an article after chatting with a worker openly collecting gutter oil from sewers near restaurants in Shanghai.

Inefficient inspection methods - an issue partly attributed to supervisory powers being shared between different government organs - has been widely cited as a main cause.

Zhu Xinli, chairman of Huiyuan, a Chinese fruit juice giant, compared the current system of divided food inspection duties to "rain being allocated by nine dragons," a mythical creature assigned to produce rain.

"A food firm usually needs to face several if not over a dozen inspection departments, but none of them will bear full responsibility," Zhu complained at a recent entrepreneur's forum.

Law enforcement officials have also reported that penalties for food-related irregularities remain light, and profiting from unsafe practices is cost-effective in an increasingly cutthroat environment.

China's rapid growth has spawned an estimated 400,000-plus food processing firms. Many of these firms employ no more than 10 workers, making inspection difficult.

Yuan Shuhong, a legal expert and senior government official, in an article carried by People's Daily, proposed tougher penalties for violators of food to reverse the worsening food safety situation.

China needs to streamline food laws and inspection methods to make them more efficient and food businesses should be primarily responsible for quality control, according to Luo Yunbo, a food science expert at China Agricultural University.

Consumer role

However, Luo also stressed there should be a balance of interests between producers and consumers, saying that consumers should be prepared to pay more for safe, quality food.

"It costs producers more to produce higher quality goods," he said.

Luo's remark echoed some comments arguing that China's low food product prices mean a lean profit margin for food producers, which has also led to the production of low-quality products.

Some experts also compared China's current food safety situation to that of the United States in the late 19th century, saying the ongoing "growing pains" will be overcome as China marches further toward modernization.

Zhang Yunlong is a Xinhua writer.

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