Apologies won't fix the sorry state of food safety

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 April, 2011, 12:00am


A joke circulating on the internet says the mainland's food safety problems have taught people a lot about chemistry.

'We learned of paraffin from toxic rice, learned of dichlorvos [an insecticide] from hams, learned of Sudan Red [dye] from salted duck eggs and chilli sauce, learned of formaldehyde from hotpot, learned of sulphur from tremella [jelly fungus], and finally learned of melamine from Sanlu brand milk.'

Recent events call for the joke to be extended: 'we learned of clenbuterol from the pork processed by meat giant Shuanghui and learned of lemon yellow [a colouring agent] and the sweetener sodium cyclamate from dyed buns in Shanghai.'

That one of the mainland's latest food safety scandals occurred in one of its most developed cities - Shanghai - is cause for added concern. Mayor Han Zheng promised a thorough investigation after workers at a Shanghai factory were caught recycling out-of-date buns. Five managers at the Shanghai Shenglu Food company have been detained. The director of the city's food safety office, Wang Longxing, said he felt 'very sorry' for Shanghai residents because steamed buns were a convenience food that many bought almost daily.

Last month, Vice-Premier Wang Qishan told National People's Congress deputies that he and other leaders were 'very much embarrassed' by the country's food safety record. But the promises and apologies won't fix the flawed food safety system. Unless the authorities enforce the law strictly, step up punishment and hold officials accountable, more food safety violations will occur.

The Shenglu scandal came to light when a China Central Television programme this month showed the factory recycling out-of-date buns into 'new' dough - mashing them and mixing them with unmeasured amounts of artificial colouring, sweeteners and preservatives. About 30,000 such buns, produced in filthy conditions, were sold to hundreds of Shanghai supermarkets every day.

Shenglu has been granted a food manufacturing business licence every year for the past decade. It also stuck a QS (quality safety) mark on each of its bags of buns, with the approval of the local quality supervision authorities.

Some managers told CCTV that quality inspectors dropped by for a visit each month, but they stayed in the manager's office and never set foot on the factory floor. That malpractice triggered an online outcry, with calls for punishment.

Food safety expert Wang Shiping, from China Agricultural University, says the authorities need to be resolute in tackling the food safety issue and should charge any officials associated with misconduct.

However, very few officials have taken the blame for recent food scandals, including several cadres in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, who were sacked over the melamine-tainted milk scandal three years ago that saw six children die and 300,000 fall ill with kidney problems after drinking adulterated baby formula. 'At present, officials generally exhibit a lacklustre response to food safety matters,' Wang says. 'I think they will only take it seriously if it's linked to their positions or performance.'

To clamp down on unscrupulous and illegal food manufacturers, the State Council established a food safety committee in February, headed by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang. Its responsibilities include: analysing the food safety situation, working out a blueprint and guidelines, proposing supervisory policies and leading their implementation. The Ministry of Health was appointed to co-ordinate government departments.

Wang says the committee's formation reflects the central government's determination to fight food safety violations, but the scandal-prone industry will prove difficult to rein in.

And don't bother looking to the local food safety offices that have been set up in some cities in recent years, he says. When illegal operations have been exposed, they've distinguished themselves by trying to dodge responsibility and kicking the ball to other departments. 'This is in sharp contrast to their enthusiasm when issuing licences, which can bring in income,' Wang says.

Penalties for food safety violations are anything but formidable. The National Food Safety Law, implemented in June 2009, capped fines at 10 times the value of products seized, with serious cases leading to the loss of business licences. A regulation issued in September last year raised the punishment to the death sentence, but even that hasn't deterred black-hearted producers.

In March, a subsidiary of Shuanghui, the mainland's biggest meat processor, was found to have bought pigs fed clenbuterol hydrochloride - known to farmers as 'lean meat powder'. It produces leaner meat but people who eat it can suffer dizziness, heart palpitations and profuse sweating.

At least six officials and employees at lower-level animal inspection stations have been fired or suspended, while 22 others - pig farm managers, traders and slaughterhouse staff - have been detained. That's why more and more disappointed people have become city farmers and grow their own vegetables. Others try their best to only eat at home, using raw food bought from farmers they trust.

Beijing nutritionist Fan Zhihong suggests steering clear of food that has gone through many manufacturing processes, because 'for each additional process, there's the risk of irregularities'.

Fan also says it's best to eat a wide range of food rather than focusing on several favourites.

'You have to diversify, since it's not clear which type or brand of food will be exposed as toxic next,' she says.