Glowing Pork, Exploding Watermelons: Why China Can’t Keep Its Food Safe

March 22, 2012

Foreign Affairs:

In July 2008, 16 children in the Chinese province of Gansu fell ill, suffering from low urine production. Their numbers multiplied, and by November hundreds of thousands of young Chinese throughout the country were experiencing varying degrees of kidney failure. Government inspections soon revealed that several prominent dairy companies and their suppliers were to blame. In an attempt to make it appear as if their products contained more protein, these companies had added melamine-formaldehyde resin, an inexpensive nitrogen-rich chemical used in plastic manufacturing, to baby formula and other types of milk.

At least ten children died. And according to researchers from Beijing University, although most children fully recovered, some 12 percent of those who ingested melamine-laced formula still showed kidney abnormalities two years later. A slew of criminal prosecutions followed the initial incident in 2008, primarily at the level of provincial People’s Courts. Both dairy representatives and complicit government officials were punished for tampering with China’s food supply. Two people were executed, another was given a suspended death penalty, three more received life in prison, and several others received long prison terms. After the World Health Organization announced that Chinese consumer confidence would be hard hit, government officials ordered the country’s media outlets to tone down coverage of the scandal. Today, there is lingering speculation that Beijing suppressed reporting of the melamine incident, and the risk it posed to countless children, for fear of bad publicity during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The crackdown on both dairy producers and the media was more than just another instance of China’s iron fist. More than anything, an insatiable hunger for profits is pushing parts of the Chinese food industry to subjugate safety. Officials have long known that unsafe food poses a huge threat to public health, perhaps one that could imperil the country’s rise. But ironically, government food-safety regulations are making the problem worse. There are too many regulatory agencies trying to enforce overlapping and conflicting regulations. For example, the Commerce Ministry supervises pork slaughterhouses, but beef and poultry slaughterhouses fall under the Agriculture Ministry. Various regions have differed over how to interpret acceptable levels of food additives, and at the provincial level many of the central government’s edicts are simply ignored. It is probably only a minority of patients with food poisoning who seek formal medical care.

But the milk scandal was hardly the first, or last, Chinese food-safety scandal. In January, the “ping-pong eggs” scandal erupted. That month, consumers in Beijing discovered thousands of hard-boiled eggs that were impossible to eat and could literally be bounced off a flat surface. Inspectors later found that hens had been fed a compound called gossypol, which binds with protein in egg yolks. Gossypol has also been used as a key ingredient in tests to develop a male contraceptive pill, although in this case it was used to produce a large, healthy-looking egg yolk. Yet again, corporate greed was to blame for a food scandal.

Since the powdered milk outrage four years ago, companies have been caught making ham laced with pesticides, counterfeit alcoholic drinks, fake baby formula, contaminated vermicelli, adulterated pickled vegetables, carcinogenic chili sauce, and canned fish that contained a dangerous fungicide. Making matters worse, early last year, Mao Qunan, the director of the Chinese Health Ministry’s Public Information Center, announced that certain journalists “with a neglectful and unserious attitude” would be blacklisted from reporting on food safety because their reports risked harming the development of China’s food industry.

So far, China’s food safety story has no happy ending. In the last 18 months, news outlets have published reports of glow-in-the-dark pork (thanks to the addition of the carcinogenic chemical clenbuterol), exploding watermelons (loaded with harmful growth accelerators), rice contaminated with heavy metals (the result of polluted soil), mushrooms imbued with bleach (to make them look fresher), and bread covered with starch (to hide mold). Perhaps the most disgusting of these incidents is the “recycling” of cooking oil from China’s drains and gutters treated to look like edible oil. After being gathered in the night and filtrated, this “distilled sewage,” noted China Daily, is sold in the morning as clear-looking oil to unwitting restaurant customers. Aflotoxin, a deadly toxin, is often added during the process…

Read it all.

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