China 2008: Food & Product Safety

CDT has produced a series of posts which summarize the key issues facing China in 2008. This latest installment focuses on food and product safety. Previous post in the China 2008 series include: China and the Developing World, Nationalism, Internet Culture, and Identity, Environmental Crisis, The Global Financial Crisis, the Revaluation of the Yuan, Human Rights, and China’s domestic market.

In the recent past, there have been many food safety issues in China.  2004 was a scandalous year for tainted foods in China: a counterfeit milk powder resulted in over 60 infant deaths; noodles tainted with lead; vegetables pickled with pesticides and industrial-grade salt; counterfeit alcohol resulted in four deaths by alcohol poisoning; and soy sauces discovered to be made from human hair. In 2005, it was discovered that many firms in China, including Heinz and Kentucky Fried Chicken, were using Sudan I Red Dye in food, a product that was banned in 1996 for causing cancer. In 2006, counterfeit drugs resulted in 16 deaths, and pesticide residue was discovered on exported vegetables.  In 2007, melamine-tainted pet food was exported around the world, resulting in untold numbers of animal deaths; China-made toothpaste was discovered to contain a toxic chemical found in antifreeze; and seafood was tainted with antibiotics, all raising international fears of Chinese food contamination.

In 2008, food and product safety issues that had been smoldering in China finally erupted in a rash of scandals, most having to do with melamine-tainting in food products such as milk, eggs, ammonium bicarbonate, protein powder, and animal feed, but also including food poisoned with pesticides, a maggot outbreak in oranges, hazardous toys, and toxic furniture.

Melamine poisoning reappeared during the tainted milk scandal this summer.  Melamine, a chemical used in the production of plastics, had been regularly and systematically added to watered-down milk by producers in order to give it a higher protein value when tested.  Melamine in such high doses, however, causes kidney stones which can lead to death. The issue first broke on July 16, when several babies were hospitalized with kidney stones.  The extent of the milk poisoning was staggering; by October, an estimated 94,000 children had already been affected, and, to date, officially six have died as a result of the tainted milk.

The investigation that followed discovered that one of the largest and most powerful milk companies, the state-owned Sanlu Group Company, had received complaints about their product sickening children as early as December 2007, but did not test their products until June of 2008.  After the contamination was discovered, the local government did not report it immediately to provincial and national authorities; rather, Sanlu had written to the local authorities asking for assistance in controlling the media surrounding the scandal.  As the news was leaked, Sanlu attempted to cover it up by buying critics’ silence, and allegedly hired a PR firm which offered search engine giant Baidu money to censor news of the scandal.

The milk tainting made huge waves in Chinese cyberspace, with many netizens demanding revenge and calling for the perpetrators to commit suicide.  In the end, Sanlu’s general manager, twelve milk dealers, and six melamine sellers were arrested.  Many parents claimed that their children also died of the milk poisoning, but the government denied these accusations; at one point, the government stopped recording the number of children infected, stating that, since it was not a communicable disease, it did not need to be tracked.  The Chinese courts have rejected a lawsuit against Sanlu brought by the parents, and it remains to be seen if the guilty will be found and punished.

In order to dispose of the tainted milk, it was dumped in local rivers, buried, or burned.  Some companies also experimented making bricks with the tainted milk.

The World Health Organization publicly criticized Beijing for waiting so long before releasing information on the tainted milk and its export abroad.  Countries around the world were recipients of tainted food and several banned Chinese milk imports. Representatives of the Taiwanese and Chinese governments met to discuss issues over food safety.  Due to the scandal, the US imposed an import ban on Chinese milk products, as well as opened a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) office in Beijing.

The melamine tainting did not stop with milk – besides milk derivatives (such as milk powder), it expanded to include eggs, and products made with milk and eggs, such as chocolate.  Melamine was also added to ammonium bicarbonate, resulting in tainted baked goods.

Issues surrounding food safety took a sinister turn when it was discovered that some of the food products made in China had actually been deliberately poisoned, either in Japan or en route to their market. In January 2008, dumplings made in China and poisoned with insecticides injured over 500 people.  Later, in September, frozen beans made in China were also found to be contaminated with a pesticide; a hole in the bag indicated that the beans had been deliberately poisoned. No arrests were made.

Besides tainted foods, other products were affected as well, such as hazardous toys and furniture that was made in China and treated with an anti-fungal agent that caused rashes in some people.

China has been called the “factory of the world”.  As an exporting county, it depends on producing items quickly and cheaply.  Wave upon wave of product safety scandals has crippled the international market for such products as Chinese milk, and has cast a long shadow on all products Chinese.  Although the CCP has made recent efforts to increase its inspections, this has been one of the largest international food safety issues and the fear of Chinese products will be difficult to overcome.

For more posts on food safety, click here.  For posts on product safety, click here.

December 9, 2008 7:15 PM
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