By Patrick Corcoran on May 9, 2011
Despite an unprecedented effort to crack down on threats to the safety of the food supply, contamination scandals abound in China.
As The New York Times reports, ever since melamine-tainted milk sickened about 300,000 infants and killed at least six in 2008, China’s government has worked to modernize its regulatory regime to protect the nation’s 1.3 billion consumers. But while the government has become more aggressive about convicting law-breaking food processors and even has executed some of the worst offenders, inspectors remain overwhelmed.
“Most of them are working like headless chickens, having no clue what are the major food-borne diseases that need to be addressed or what are the major contaminants in the food process,” said Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety expert at the World Health Organization.
The industry’s brisk growth and decentralization also pose challenges. China has some 500,000 food producers, 80 percent of them small operations with 10 workers or less.
A leading example of the hazards in China’s food continues to be milk laced with the industrial chemical melamine, which can cause kidney damage. It is used by unscrupulous processors to make watered-down milk appear to have more protein than it actually does. Just late last month, 26 tons of powdered milk tainted with melamine were discovered at an ice-cream company in the southwestern city of Chongqing.
But the problem goes well beyond tainted milk. As the Times reports, steamed buns have been repackaged and resold after their sell-by dates, after being dumped into a vat and baked anew with more water and flour. Authorities also have discovered pork sold as beef after being soaked in borax, a laundry detergent chemical, as well as pork adulterated with clenbuterol, a drug that promotes muscle growth in pigs but can cause heart palpitations in people who consume the food. Some of the other concoctions discovered are soy sauce laced with arsenic and fake eggs, creations put together using a cocktail of chemicals, gelatin and paraffin.
As a result, Chinese consumers fear for what is in their food. “Basically, people now feel nothing is safe to eat,” Sang Liwei, of the Food Safety Forum, told the Times. “They don’t know what choices to make. They are really feeling very helpless.”
Chinese authorities have expressed displeasure and even shame about the persistent problems. “Just when the people have enough to feed themselves, we have this food-safety problem,” said Vice Premier Wang Qishan at a meeting with legislators in March, according to Xinhua, the state news outlet. “Really embarrassing, this is really embarrassing for us.”
The government has responded with significant changes. They include a 2009 food safety law intended to bring China’s rules in line with international standards, and a recent milk safety campaign that closed nearly half of the nation’s dairy producers.