The public's long-held distrust of food and drug safety on the mainland was stirred once again this week by the exposure of toxic medicine capsules containing far more chromium than is allowed.
The scandal, first reported by China Central Television, attracted a great deal of attention and led to vows by the country's top drug and security authorities that it would be followed by a thorough investigation and a severe crackdown. The Ministry of Public Security said on its website on Thursday that 53 people had been detained, 10 gelatin manufacturers or capsule makers busted and more than 230 tonnes of industrial gelatin seized.
Most of the suspects and enterprises are from Zhejiang's Xinchang county, home to 43 such factories able to produce a total of 100 billion capsules a year - about a third of the mainland's capsule output.
Capsule workshops are found in almost every corner of the county and it's an open secret that their raw materials are industrial gelatin, the Beijing Daily reported on Tuesday.
At least two capsule makers, raided by the authorities recently, had already been blacklisted by county authorities for chromium problems. They were fined last year and their raw materials confiscated, Xinhua reports.
The industrial gelatin used in the capsules was bought in Hebei or Jiangxi, with the capsules then being sold to drug companies across the mainland.
CCTV said that 13 commonly used capsules from nine pharmaceutical enterprises, some with big shares of the mainland market, had excessive levels of chromium.
The State Food and Drug Administration ordered a halt to the sale of the 13 kinds of capsules and on Thursday released its own test results, which showed that at least half of the capsule drugs from the nine drug companies were substandard.
It ordered the pharmaceutical factories to recall and suspend the manufacture and sale of all capsule drugs. It also issued a circular requiring local food watchdogs to inspect all edible and industrial gelatin producers, as well as enterprises that use gelatin in production.
The top drug authority has stripped three Xinchang capsule makers of their licences and has pledged that any officials who were derelict in performing their duties will be prosecuted.
However, like many previous food and drug safety scandals, this one was first exposed by the media, not the authorities that are supposed to ensure people's safety. People can't help but ask what such officials do every day.
After each scandal the authorities launch crackdowns but the problems remain.
China National Radio reported on Wednesday that Health Minister Chen Zhu had urged the public to be confident about China's pharmaceutical products.
Internet users are not convinced.
Some asked why Chen or Yin Li, the head of the drug watchdog, had yet to apologise.
One widely circulated post showed people how to split a capsule and put the powder in a steamed bun to take the drugs. It urged people to make sure first that the steamed buns were safe, reminding people of last year's dyed buns scandal.