In China, Recent Scandals Show Ongoing Battle for Food Safety

Written by Marta Cooper , Global Voices

A slew of food scandals have occurred in China in recent weeks, highlighting the country’s ongoing challenge with maintaining levels of food safety.

Most recently, a report on broadcaster CCTV2 revealed that a Shanghai producer of steamed buns (mantou) used contained dye and excessive amounts of artificial sweetener in the product, and relabelled for sale buns that had already expired and were returned from local supermarkets. Wang Longxing, director of the Shanghai Food Safety Office, has since apologised for the scandal, insisting that supermarkets should also bear some responsibility for failing to check the quality of the buns before selling them.

Poisonous milk, meat, rice, and then?

Also this month, three children died and 35 others were hospitalised in the northwestern province of Gansu, after drinking what officials suspect was milk tainted with nitrite, an industrial salt. Chinese state media followed up with news from police that two suspects had intentionally poisoned the milk out of anger against the farmer who had produced it.

In March, pork from a subsidiary of China’s largest meat processor, Shuanghui Group in Henan, was found to contain an illegal additive, clenbuterol, used to produce lean meat. Authorities in the province responded by taking 72 people associated with producing, using or selling the additive into custody, closing 16 pig farms and sealing 134 tonnes of pork products. China’s Ministry of Agriculture also pledged that the government would launch a one-year crackdown on the use of illegal additives in pig feed.

Rice is the major food source in China. Photo by Flickr user Herr_Bert (CC BY-SA 2.0)

China’s rice sector has also faced controversy, with various reports highlighting that as much as 10% of the country’s rice is tainted with heavy metals. In southern China in particular, toxins have been discharged with sewage by mining operations and made their way into rice paddies. A recent expose by Caixin magazine revealed:

Much of the toxic rice is consumed by farm families who can’t afford the “clean” rice sold in markets. But some rice laced with heavy metals also slips through safety checks and is sold on the general market, experts say, sometimes to consumers in China’s wealthiest cities.

Unsolved melamine milk scandal

Such potentially fatal episodes are not new. Perhaps the most notable scandal came in 2008, when six children died and nearly 300,000 fell ill from powdered milk laced with melamine. An industrial chemical, when added to watered-down milk it can boost readings of protein levels, but also causes kidney stones in infants. The episode prompted Chinese authorities to tighten the regulation of food safety, with the country’s first Food Safety Law taking effect in June 2009. (Incidentally, China’s top legislator yesterday called for a more in-depth and comprehensive enforcement of the legislation).

Responding to the scandal was Zhao Lianhai (@zhaolianhai), whose son fell ill from the tainted milk. He set up a website for other affected parents to exchange details on how to sue the companies involved, and was in 2010 sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for “disturbing social order” as a result of his activism. He was released on medical parole in December of the same year.

In a recent YouTube clip in which he calls for the release of detained artist Ai Weiwei and other victims of China’s recent crackdown on potential dissent, Zhao alludes to the 2008 scandal:

It seems that many children have been unable to receive timely treatment, including some children whose cases have become more serious. Local governments, and relevant departments included, have simply turned their backs. We hope first of all from a humanitarian viewpoint, from the most basic consideration of our children, that some practical things be urgently done. I’m sure that all parents will have an attitude of tolerance in looking at the tragedies that befell each of our families. In this age of hours, we can withstand a measure of grievance. But we hope that all of the ills we bear can bring more goodness for this country of ours, creating a better social environment for those who come after us. In that society, all of our generations will live in security.

Netizens’ comments

ChinaGeeks last week selected and translated a handful of netizens’ recent comments on Sina Weibo [zh], China’s domestic version of Twitter. Among them:

Take the people from the [relevant] government department out and shoot them. Why is it always the media that discovers this stuff first?

Any food may have something added to it, so why aren’t the higher-level leaders nervous? They think that of course the common people must eat from the same special, environmentally protected stock that they do (…) what high-level official has been investigated or forced to resign? The common people are forced to determine for themselves whether even basic foods and drinks are poisoned or not. Leaders of the food safety [department], have you no sense of shame? If those food inspection officials who shirked their duty aren’t executed, the problem of contaminated food will never disappear.

There’s no big scandal here, don’t be alarmist. Isn’t this just inserting some dye for color? Isn’t it just putting expired mantou back to work? What is that, it’s no big deal…As a great Chinese citizen, as the descendants of Yan Di and Huang Di, as the Chinese who have successfully made it to this point, you’re not even willing to eat this, and you’re not ashamed?

China itself is a society of mutual poisoning, a society of mutual pain-infliction. You add some [poison] to the milk, I put sweet additives into expired mantou, he puts additives into the food he feeds his pigs, oil, crab, rice, duck eggs…even if the milk manufacturers don’t drink milk, they eat mantou. Even if the mantou makers don’t eat mantou, they eat pork. Even if the pork farmers don’t eat pork, they drink milk. In the end, we’re just hurting ourselves. The nation is in peril, inviting ridicule and shame.

Blogger Jiangminct, meanwhile, responded to the discovery of mercury in Coilia Ecetenes Jordan, a rare and expensive fresh water fish in the Yangtze river. Fish dealers had injected mercury [zh] to increase the weight of the fish and make it look fresher.

我们的老百姓啊,祖国的花朵啊,你们能够吃到染色馒头、过期馒头、重金属米粉,那也是你们的幸运,毕竟这些东西不会吃死人,看你们长期吃,也没有拉肚子、长癌症,还是生龙活虎的,就是证据。你们就别嚷嚷了,感谢那个生产染色馒头的老板吧,他已经很仁慈了,没有让你们吃水银,只是让你们吃了一点点色素而已,他的良心大大的好。[…]

今天我不打算评论有关部门和所有监督部门,这个话题让人很累,说了还是一样,再过几天某地又会冒出某食品有问题的新闻。至于为什么,只可意会,不可言传,你们都懂的。总之,相信谁也不如相信自己。在这个神奇的国家,我们的食品没有最毒,只有更毒。

Our people, flowers of our motherland, you are lucky to have dyed bun, heavy metal rice, at least they would not take away your lives. See, after all these years, you don’t have cancer, no diarrhea. Your body is still in good shape. This is proof. Don’t you complain, you should be thankful to the dyed bun manufacturers, they are so kind not to add mercury, just a little bid of chemical dye. They are people with a very good conscience […].

I don’t want to comment on the role of food monitoring department, this is such a tiring subject. There is no use commenting, news about food security keeps popping up. Why? The reason cannot be spelled out, but I am sure you know. In a nutshell, you cannot believe in anyone except yourself. In this amazing country, we don’t have the most poisonous food, but always the more poisonous one.

Western and expat bloggers have largely remained unsurprised, but wonder for how long such scandals will continue before effective government regulation is enforced.

Chinese quote translated by Oiwan Lam.   Originally published at Global Voices:  http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/04/17/china-recent-scandals-show-ongoing-battle-for-food-safety/