In China, Fear of Fake Eggs and ‘Recycled’ Buns

The flurry of recent food scandals has left Chinese consumers cautious and extremely wary. The newest Chinese food scandal revolves around “fake eggs” and “recycled” buns, or baozi. From NY Times:

Mr. Zhu’s buns were soft, tasty and fresh, made every day, he said, at 3 a.m. The supermarket’s, on the other hand, came from a filthy workshop where workers “recycled” buns after their sell-by date. The workers merely threw the stale buns into a vat, added water and flour, and repackaged them to be sold anew.

In recent weeks, China’s news media have reported sales of pork adulterated with the drug clenbuterol, which can cause heart palpitations; pork sold as beef after it was soaked in borax, a detergent additive; rice contaminated with cadmium, a heavy metal discharged by smelters; arsenic-laced soy sauce; popcorn and mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach; bean sprouts tainted with an animal antibiotic; and wine diluted with sugared water and chemicals.

Even eggs, seemingly sacrosanct in their shells, have turned out not to be eggs at all but man-made concoctions of chemicals, gelatin and paraffin. Instructions can be purchased online, the Chinese media reported.

Scandals are proliferating, in part, because producers operate in a cutthroat environment in which illegal additives are everywhere and cost-effective. Manufacturers calculate correctly that the odds of profiting from unsafe practices far exceed the odds of getting caught, experts say. China’s explosive growth has spawned nearly half a million food producers, the authorities say, and four-fifths of them employ 10 or fewer workers, making oversight difficult.

Basically, people now feel nothing is safe to eat,” said Sang Liwei, who directs the Beijing office of the Global Food Safety Forum, a private agency. “They don’t know what choices to make. They are really feeling very helpless.”

Why does China have such big problems with food safety? Greed, lack of awareness and too much bureaucracy could be one answer. From Wall Street Journal:

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.

But education is only part of the problem. Another issue, according to Mr. Ross, is that there are too many cooks in the kitchen — or rather too many bureaucracies handling food safety. The Ministry of Health is the lead agency on food safety issues, he explains, but the State Administration for Industry and Commerce is also involved, as are the State Food and Drug Administration and the Ministry of Agriculture.

The big difference between the U.S. and China is size, Ms. Ming says, adding that the quantity of companies involved in China’s food industry will make for tougher regulatory obstacles.

“It’s impossible to lessen such problems overnight,” Mrs. Ming said. “It will take many years.”

May 7, 2011 5:10 PM
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Categories: Environment, Law, Society