Heavy Metals Tainting China’s Rice Bowls

Recent studies reveal that as much as 10% of China’s rice is contaminated with excessive levels of heavy metals. Often, farmers in poorer areas consume most of the contaminated rice . Caixin has done an expose on cadmium-laced local rice in the village of Sidi, in Guangxi Autonomous Region. From Caixin:

According to farm researchers, Sidi’s poisoned rice is not particularly rare in China. In fact, 2007 and ’08 studies by Nanjing Agricultural University scientists determined as much as 10 percent of China’s rice may be tainted by cadmium. A Chinese Academy of Sciences research fellow has reached a similar conclusion. Cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals are discharged with sewage by mining operations and make their way into rice paddies, especially in southern China. The problem is decades-old, and rice contamination continues today due to wide gaps in government farm, environmental and food safety oversight. 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.

The contaminated rice is usually consumed locally by farmers too poor to afford to do otherwise. However,  researchers fear a growing trend of farmers intentionally selling their tainted harvests to the market. From Caixin:

Chen and his colleagues found that rising affluence in rural areas with contaminated soil has made local farmers increasingly prone to sell, rather than keep for local consumption, tainted rice. They’d rather eat clean rice grown in other areas. In this way, and despite food safety regulations, the danger of heavy metals in rice eaten across China including urban areas appears to be increasing.

Following this revelation, the  government affiliated newspaper China Daily has tried to alleviate fears about contamination by stressing that the tainted rice is found only in particular areas.From China Daily:

China, which produces and consumes more rice than any other country, grows nearly 200 million tons of rice a year. If 10 percent of that total is contaminated with cadmium, then roughly 20 million tons may be tainted, according to the report. Pan and other experts said the pollution is confined to a few specific regions, so there is no reason for a general panic. Shang Qi, a researcher from Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said: “Cadmium tainting is prevalent in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, Guizhou and Hunan provinces, but not other parts of the country.” “So it would be hasty to conclude that 10 percent of the rice sold on the market is contaminated with cadmium,” he said. “The original findings only said that it was 10 percent of the samples collected that were tainted.”

This story is indicative of China’s continual weakness in policing and regulating food safety. Read about past instances of food contamination in China here.

February 18, 2011 11:00 AM
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Categories: Economy, Society