Nation starts to question its addiction to additives

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 June, 2011, 12:00am


It seems cooks on the mainland have found the best way to satisfy their customers' taste buds - and it is not grandma's secret recipe.

A visit to the food additive section of Xinfadi, Beijing's largest food wholesale market, will reveal all.

Want to save time and money? Add a dash of 'One Drop Flavour' to some water and it will look and taste like a pot of meat broth that has been simmering for a day. Want to freshen up that beef? No worries. One powder will produce a pan of delicious-looking meat.

The food industry takes great pride in such artificial flavourings and colour enhancers, as evidenced by the giant banner hanging over the market that reads 'Food additives are the soul of the food industry'.

However, public confidence in that industry has been hit by recent incidents involving the illegal use of some substances in food. State media reported that mainland adults consumed an average 90 food additives a day and questioned whether many were necessary.

But food safety experts say the additives can enhance taste or colours, help preserve food or make it easier to transport. More importantly, they are safe if applied to meet standards released last month.

However, adding non-edible substances, such as colouring egg yolks with the dye Sudan red, lacing milk with melamine or feeding pigs clenbuterol, was a crime.

'So far we have not seen one case of a food safety accident caused by food additives,' said Yan Weixing, the director of the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety under the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

The mainland has approved 2,400 food additives in 23 categories such as flavour enhancers, colour agents and preservatives. About 710 million tonnes of additives were produced last year, an 11 per cent increase year on year, the Ministry of Health said.

Wu Yongning, chief scientist at the institute, said additives could be used to 'make something better or more tasty', but not to cover up defects or rotten food. 'This is the fundamental principle,' he said.

Yan defended the widespread use of additives in food, saying they were safe 'even for the most sensitive group of people consuming such additives every day - it is still within our health guidelines'.

But the public is troubled by the suspicion that the code covering food additives is not being properly followed and the food they are eating is not all it appears to be.

In April, authorities in Zhongshan, Guangdong, uncovered sweet potato flour made with corn, ink and paraffin, and supermarkets in Shanghai selling old buns treated with an illegal yellow dye and the sweetener sodium cyclamate.

'The food safety problem is an integrity problem,' Wu said. 'Ractopamine [a banned feed additive that makes pigs produce leaner meat] is allowed in the United States, Japan and Australia, but why not in China? It would be all right if used strictly following the standard, but in China people add as much as they want.'

Yan said it was difficult to stop food manufacturers from adding non-edible substances into their products.

Melamine might be the best example. Until September 2008, most people had never heard of the industrial chemical, nor did they have any idea that it was being added to some raw milk to boost its nitrogen content, allowing it to pass protein testing. After at least six children died and more than 300,000 became ill, it was a household name.

Beijing is aware of the public's discontent over food safety issues. A China Youth Daily survey found that 89.7 per cent of respondents believed the government bore the most responsibility for the problem.

The State Council said last month that adding non-edible substances to food or abusing food additive standards had become the most serious food safety problem, and ordered a year-long crackdown and severe punishments for offenders.

Wu said the problem would not be solved by the government's approach of having different bodies supervise one link of the food chain. It was more practical for ministries to supervise different kinds of food and be held responsible for the entire production process, he said.

Meanwhile, in Xinfadi, vendors have put away their flavourings and other additives. 'Come back later when the control is not so tight,' one said.