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Borax Beef, Fake Eggs, Reused Buns: China Food Woes Continue

Food Panic

This list of deliberate food contaminations in China reported by the New York Times sounds too extreme to be true:

  • Pork was sold as beef after it was soaked in sodium borate. 5 grams of sodium borate can kill a child.
  • Pork was adulterated with the drug clenbuterol, which can cause heart palpitations.
  • Rice was contaminated with cadmium, a heavy metal discharged by smelters.
  • Soy sauce was laced with arsenic.
  • Popcorn and mushrooms were treated with fluorescent bleach.
  • Bean sprouts were tainted with an animal antibiotic.
  • Wine was diluted with sugared water and chemicals.

These grievances all happened over the last few weeks.

This list doesn't include the infamous 2009 melamine-powdered-milk incident that killed several children and attracted international attention. Even though Chinese officials said that all of the melamine-tainted milk products had been destroyed, 26 tons of melamine-tainted milk powder were just uncovered in the end of April at an ice cream bar factory in Chongqing.

Fake Food

The two most recent food safety incidents show that China's food safety problems are still out of control.

Chinese media reported that some manufactures have been making fake eggs. Man-made egg-like objects are made out of chemicals, gelatin, and paraffin and are sold as eggs that came from a chicken. The instructions to make these fake eggs are online.

Some food producers stooped to a new level over steamed buns. After old buns passed their sell-by date at the grocery store, they were sent back to their manufacturer, Shanghai Shenglu Food Company. At the factory the stale buns were thrown into a vat with water, flour, an illegal yellow food coloring, and an amount of artificial sweetener that exceeded national standards. The buns were then repackaged and resold as new, fresh buns. The company estimated that it produced 336,000 buns since January.

A joint committee in Shanghai has detained five suspects thought to be involved with the recycled buns incident, including the company's director. Shanghai Shenglu Food Company's food production license has also been revoked, and the government has impounded 32,000 buns from store shelves.

"We must gravely crack down on illegal activities and will never relent," says Li Yuanping, a spokesman for the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine.

China's Food Safety Policy

However, the ongoing incidents throughout China's food markets raise the question: Is the country cracking down on illegal food activities in an effective way?

In 2009 China passed sweeping reform of its food safety system and recognized food safety issues as a national problem. Although this was an important first step, an inadequate regulatory system, combined with fierce market pressures, has led to continued food safety violations.

For food manufacturers, it is cost effective to use illegal chemicals and additives because the chances of getting caught are far less than the chances of making food cheaper and turning a greater profit. Food producers see their animals maturing into leaner, more desirable meat more quickly; their vegetables become more shiny; and their products become more tempting to unsuspecting consumers.

Whatever the motivation, most of these crimes go unnoticed by government employees, because the responsibility for checking food is spread out over many agencies. Additionally, China still utilizes a random-check system where companies send random samples to the government for testing. This has been proven ineffective, and if food samples do fail testing, the violation can sometimes be overlooked with a bribe.

Why Do Food Safety Problems Keep Happening?

Other obstacles stand in the way of the various agencies responsible for keeping an eye on food (which include the Ministry of Health, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, the State Food and Drug Administration, and the Ministry of Agriculture).

Some food producers are small companies, many of whom employ fewer than 10 people and some of which still slaughter animals in backyards instead of state-inspected slaughterhouses.

The other problem is China's size. Because there are so many consumers and food producers in the country, they are very difficult to regulate.

Additionally, there is no effective system of measuring the occurrence of food-borne illnesses. For example, a 1-year old girl died in Beijing after she ate fried chicken bought from an outdoor vendor. Feng Ping, a professor at Beijing Academy of Food Sciences, says she may have died from excessive levels of chemical nitrite found in the chicken, but it is hard to be sure because collecting data is difficult.

Chinese Citizens Are Frustrated

The Chinese government says that the media should be blamed for the rising food panics. Supermarket chains blame the food providers. Shoppers don't know who to trust.

In an article that appeared in the opinion section of China Daily (but seems to have been recently removed), an unnamed critic says

The existing problems with food safety in this country do not stem from lack of regulation; they stem from lack of enforcement. It is time to apply the same standards to food products for domestic consumption as we do those for overseas. Chinese consumers should be able to eat safe food the same as foreigners.

He criticizes that the government strictly regulates exported foods, and meticulously monitors food associated with international events - like the 2008 Olympics in Beijing - but is not able to enforce its own food safety laws for its citizens.

Solutions For The Future

Better enforcement of the government's 2009 Food Safety laws would help. The China Daily critic argrees, "If the law were effectively enforced, we would have no worries about the quality of the food on our plates."

Tighter quality controls on manufactures are needed as well as reform of the random-selection inspection system. Increasing the public's and food producers' education about the negative effects of chemicals will help.

As the recycled buns scandal is continuing to attract international critique, the Chinese Ministry of Health has said it will make a list of illegal food additives and black-listed chemicals available at the end of the year. The government has also increased inspections, as can be seen with the 16 tons of pork that was seized in Guangdong after it was tainted with sodium borate, and the confiscation of 40 tons of bean sprouts bathed in illegal chemicals that are known carcinogens, like urea, in Shenyang.

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