Fears over food safety linger after milk scandal

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 February, 2011, 12:00am
 

In the aftermath of the mainland's biggest food safety scandal, Premier Wen Jiabao promised to restore public confidence within two years, maybe 'sooner'.

Melamine-tainted infant milk formula left six children dead and more than 300,000 ill with kidney problems in 2008.

But more than two years on, the public still needs some convincing.

And reports this week that at least 10 per cent of rice contains excessive amounts of the heavy metal cadmium show that it is still a problem.

Almost 70 per cent of mainland consumers have serious doubts about food safety, according to a survey released by Insight China magazine and Tsinghua University's Media Survey Lab. With staples such as cooked meat, dairy products, fresh meat, canned food and cooking oil among the top 10 food concerns, the level of distrust is unprecedented.

It is also well-founded.

The National Food Safety Regulating Work Office said there were 130,000 food safety cases last year.

More than 165 tonnes of edible oil failed to make the grade in a crackdown on 'gutter oil', usually refined from discarded kitchen waste.

And more than 27,000 tonnes of melamine-tainted milk powder recycled from stock that should have been destroyed in 2008 was seized in another crackdown.

Industry insiders and other observers blame poor regulation, weak safety laws and a dysfunctional system that fails to prevent or severely punish hazardous behaviour.

Consumers have to arm themselves with sound knowledge, keep their eyes open and even roll up their sleeves to keep fake wine, dyed mushrooms, dirty bean curd, mouldy rice noodles, toxic dairy drinks and cancer-causing cooking oil off their dinner tables.

The chairwoman of a Beijing company that processes and sells cooked meats said the problem stemmed from the need to feed the mainland's 1.3 billion people.

'What you're told in newspapers or as hearsay is not exaggerating at all,' she said. 'The government encourages big farms and they require you to meet market demand.

'The pig farmers cannot afford to have sick pigs and it's convenient for them to feed pigs with antibiotics so that they don't get sick.

'Meeting market demand is the big premise. When meeting market demand is a problem, food safety cannot be a priority.'

She said coming from a family that had been engaged in the cooked meat business for generations, what she found most scary about pork nowadays was that slaughterhouses no longer removed sick pigs.

'Like people, pigs can fall ill with all kinds of diseases. But now, even the big state-owned slaughterhouses do not enforce that,' she said.

'It was not like that when I was young and it is very scary.'

Zhou Jianping, a chicken farmer in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, said it was common for farmers to mix hormones in feed so that the rearing period could be shortened, with chickens less than 40 days old sometimes being sold for meat.

A fishing industry insider told the Economic Observer feeding fish antibiotics and then soaking them in formalin to preserve their freshness had become a common practice.

Regulation was lax and easy to avoid, he said.

And when the regulators fail to do their job properly, consumers become victims.

The Beijing chairwoman said her company used pork from big state-owned companies such as COFCO because its quality was controlled.

But some small companies used meat from suspicious sources because it was cheap.

When they failed quality inspections, they would just switch packaging. 'Those companies always come back with a different brand, but it's the same company,' she said.

'If there was a stricter policy, with a five-year or even a lifetime ban from entering the market, I think those owners would be more cautious and pay more attention to food quality.'

The mainland rushed through a food safety law in the wake of the melamine-tainted milk scandal.

But the law, which came into effect in June 2009, is generally considered weak and not intimidating enough.

The law ended the practice of exempting certain companies from product quality inspections, established a product recall system and instituted uniform, nationwide standards for everything from allowable additives to nutritional labelling.

But although the law increased fines for companies that produce substandard food, it said violators should be punished according to criminal laws, without being more specific.

Criminal law at present pertains only to those who produce and sell substandard food, but food safety also involves food processing, packaging, transport, storage and the supervision of not only food, but also food additives.

'The real problem is that in China, whenever such a scandal comes out, the government regards it as a social incident that might affect the stability of its rule, but not as a legal matter,' said rights lawyer Wang Zhenyu , who is also deputy director of the Research Institute of Public Policy under the China University of Political Science and Law.

The rampant food safety scandals also spoke volumes about declining ethics in Chinese society, Wang said.

'There is no religion, no fear and no belief in karma,' he said. 'There are no public ethics at all.'

Wang said irresponsible government agencies were turning a blind eye to food safety problems. While they lacked the scientific or technological ability to conduct inspections, they also lacked the motivation because conducting such inspections brought them no benefit.

And as long as there were no big scandals their jobs were safe.

'Sometimes they are reluctant to have strict regulations or inspections because of inherent conflicts of interest,' Wang said.

Some academics say there are too many players regulating food safety - the ministries of health, industry and information technology, commerce and the food and drug and industry and commerce administrations - but that no agency is really taking the lead.

They have called for the establishment of a powerful government agency to govern food safety to stop the finger-pointing when a problem is discovered.

A State Council Food Safety Commission, headed by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, and including the heads of relevant government agencies, was established last year. But it is only a co-operative body.

Wang said pinning hopes on administrative enforcement had led food safety to the sorry state it is in now and had proved to be the wrong approach.

A more effective idea was to depend on self-regulation by industry associations and non-governmental inspection bodies.

'These associations can establish a barrier or code of ethics for members to abide by and when they fail they will pay a heavy price and not be able to survive in the industry,' Wang said.

While the government is engaged in a seemingly doomed battle, the public has come up with way of coping.

The more affluent have grouped together or hired people to plant vegetables and raise livestock for their daily consumption.

Cheng Cunwang, a PhD student at Renmin University's School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, has seen many pigs fed with the banned steroid clenbuterol, known in China as 'lean meat powder'.

He said the organic farm he worked on, the Little Donkey, had attracted hundreds of customers because its vegetables were grown without the chemical fertilisers and pesticides used on most mainland farms.

The less affluent have other means.

Wang Xiaoli, an office worker in Shanghai who became increasingly alarmed about pesticide residue, hormones and additives, has come up with what she calls a 'last resort' plan.

She buys a variety of vegetables to disperse risks and never buys bean sprouts because of reports that they are boiled in chemicals such as preservatives and bleach to make them look white and strong.

She purchases only top brand meat from supermarkets, saying 'price is not an issue because even if you buy the expensive stuff from the supermarket it is way cheaper than eating out - and you have a good meal.'

She never buys vegetables out of season and never buys industrially processed snacks to avoid additives.

She's also planted vegetables for her three-year-old daughter on a small plot of land outside her house.

'I also tried to raise chickens in the yard, too, but had to give up because people thought it was not hygienic,' she said.

'It sounds like a lot of fuss but all my friends or neighbours who have kids are all like this. We have no choice but to be very careful.'

Down in the mouth

This percentage told a survey they had serious doubts about food safety: 70%

Fatal formula

Melamine-tainted infant milk formula left this number of children dead on the mainland: 6

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