Why China Struggles with Food Safety

With two recent cases of contaminated pork, the issue of food safety in China is still in the news. The Wall Street Journal reports on a village outside Changsha where hundreds of people were sickened over the weekend after eating pork, just after authorities seized tons of pork in Guangdong that had a chemical added to it to make it look more like beef:

Officials in Changsha, the capital of central Hunan province, confirmed on Monday that 286 people had sought medical help over the weekend after eating in Wu Feng, a village 25 miles southwest of Changsha. Eight people are still in hospital.

The state-run China Daily newspaper blamed clenbuterol, a substance that speeds muscle growth in pigs but can cause headache, nausea and an irregular heartbeat when consumed by humans. Changsha authorities could not confirm the report, saying that they were opening an investigation.

China has been hit by a wave of food-additive scares recently. Health officials over the weekend ordered 17 noodle makers in Dongguan, a city in southern Guangdong province, to stop production after discovering their products contained non-edible additives such as ink, industrial dye and paraffin wax, according to the China Daily.

In Guangdong, authorities last week seized 16 tons of pork contaminated with sodium borate, which changes the color of the meat to make it look more like higher-priced beef, according to the People’s Procuratorate of Guangdong Province, a government body in charge of prosecutions.

The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog looks at government efforts to rein in food safety problems and the reasons they have not worked:

Beijing has struggled with food safety for years. The problem appeared to come to a head in 2008, when milk tainted with the industrial chemical melamine killed at least six children, sickened tens of thousands of others in 2008 and appeared to shock the government into taking decisive action. But the melamine eventually reappeared in the Chinese food supply, along with a host of other chemicals and illegal additives, leading many observers to wonder why China can’t seem to solve such a fundamental problem.

One of the biggest issues is the drive to make a buck at any cost, says Lester Ross, a Beijing-based attorney with U.S. law firm WilmerHale. Some companies see that by using additives, they can cut overhead costs or boost profit margins, and they merely aren’t thinking about the affects the additives will have on consumers, Mr. Ross says.

The answer to that, according to Mr. Ross, is an education blitz. China has the ability to plaster its subways, bus stations and even television screens with messages and advertising that lets all people know the dangers involved using chemical additives in food.

Local media reports of illnesses related to chemical consumption have helped, Mr. Ross says. A flood of news stories in recent days have informed Chinese consumers that meat containing clenbuterol may be leaner, but it may also cause headaches, nausea, and heart palpitations, while vegetables with sodium nitrite may grow faster, but they can also cause cancer.

In a push for greater clarity, China’s Ministry of Health is planning to revise and make public its list of legal food additives by the end of the year, while also publishing a black list of illegal additives, the state run China Daily reports.

Read more about food safety in China via CDT.

April 25, 2011 3:05 PM
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