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Food safety and environmental pollution are serious problems in China and rumors and public fears over cases of fake or toxic food can spread quickly. Food safety scandals have included reports of glow-in-the-dark pork, exploding watermelons, cadmium-laced rice, fake eggs, salmonella-tainted seafood, carcinogenic recycled cooking oil and pesticide-soaked fruit.

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “Bodybuilder pigs given illegal growth hormones in their feed. Harmful additives to make pork taste like beef. Outdated steamed buns painted with coloring to look new. Formaldehyde in a popular Sichuan dish. Exploding watermelons that had been treated with plant growth chemicals.” [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “To eat, drink and be merry in China is done at a risk: Weddings increasingly end with trips to the emergency room. During the May Day holiday weekend, 192 people from two weddings elsewhere in Hunan fell so ill they had to be hospitalized....If anything, China's food scandals are becoming increasingly frequent and bizarre. In May, a Shanghai woman who had left uncooked pork on her kitchen table woke up in the middle of the night and noticed that the meat was emitting a blue light, like something out of a science fiction movie. Experts pointed to phosphorescent bacteria, blamed for another case of glow-in-the-dark pork last year. Farmers in eastern Jiangsu province complained to state media last month that their watermelons had exploded "like landmines" after they mistakenly applied too much growth hormone in hopes of increasing their size.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2011]

In a single week in March 2011, state newspapers have reported that regulators found “unsafe artificial green peas” in Hunan Province and some 20,000 pounds of “toxic vegetables” in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Those vegetables had excessive pesticide residues, according to a government Web site.In the case of the green peas, two illegal food workshops were caught processing dried snow peas and soybeans with chemicals and bleach to produce the appearance of more expensive green peas.

Good Websites and Sources: China Food ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Digital Times list of articles ; Links in this Website: Contaminated Pet Food, See PETS IN CHINA ; Genetically Modified Food, See CROPS IN CHINA ; Drug Safety, See HEALTH CARE IN CHINA: TRANSPLANTS AND DRUGS ; Tainted Food See AGRICULTURE IN CHINA

Severe Food Problems in China

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frozen meatballs
There have been nightmare tales in China of soy sauce laced with arsenic-tainted human hair; hormone-filled snack food that caused facial hair to grow on six-year-old boys and breast to develop on seven-year-old girls; and dangerous drugs given to pigs to make their meat look better. In Shandong people have died from eating leeks coated with pesticides.

In 2001, a company that made drinks and vitamins for pregnant women was found to have used fake ingredients. In 2003, twelve children died and hundreds of others suffered brain damage or became of malnourished when they were given counterfeit baby formula that had no nutritional value.

In December 2006, a factory manager was arrested for using used grease from swill, sewage and recycled industrial oil to make edible lard. A “toxic pesticide” was also detected in the lard. In the summer of 2006, 87 people became seriously ill after eating undercooked snails at a Beijing restaurant.

In January 2007, nearly 300 employees of the BYD Co, a Shanghai automaker, were hospitalized after eating undercooked kidney beans. In March 2007, more than 400 people in Yunnan Province’s Lincang County were hospitalized with food poisoning they came down with at a wedding banquet.

In November 2007, six people were killed, including two children, after eating soup for lunch in the central province of Hubei. Two more were made seriously ill. The victims suffered severe cramps and vomited and collapsed after eating the soup at a scrap collection center. According to the Shanghai Daily, the cook who made the soup, who was among the dead, “found the rice dough he was preparing for making tangyuan [rice dumplings] was too watery and he decided to add more rice flour. Unfortunately, he mistook rat poison that had been placed together with other condiments as flour and mixed it with the dough.”

Gyoza Scare in Japan

In December 2008 and January 2008, 10 people in three families in two areas---Chiba and Hyogo prefectures---became seriously ill after eaten gyoza frozen dumplings produced in China that were contaminated with the pesticide methaminophus, a highly toxic organic phosphate pesticide. One of the victims---a five-year-old girl went into a coma.

The 10 people that were sickened were a mother and daughter in Chiba city who ate the gyoza in late December; five members of a family in Ichikawa in Chiba Prefecture who consumed the gyoza in January; and three members of a family in Takasago, Hyogo Prefecture, including the five-year-old girl, who ate their gyoza in January. The quantity of methaminophus in the Hyogo gyoza was 44,000 times what was considered safe.

One of the Chiba city victims said she became dizzy, felt nauseous and had diarrhea about 20 minutes after eating the gyoza. Her husband called an ambulance. By the time she arrived at the hospital she was numb with cold and her temperature dropped to 34 degrees C. For two days she was unable to move and was unable to eat for longer than that. Her husband said he “felt her life was in danger.”

The five-year-old girl who went into the coma and the other four members of her family were all hospitalized after eating tainted gyoza. The girl was unconscious for three days and suffered cramps in her face and hands, was constantly salivating and had tears streaming from her eyes. At one point her temperature topped 40 degrees C. She was on a respirator for over a weeks and was hospitalized for almost a month. She suffered more than other family members because she ate more gyoza to her body weight than other members of her family.

During the gyoza scare 2,745 people called health officials complaining of problems and 884 people sought the help of doctors but these people either suffered from a kind of hysteria or mistakenly attributed symptoms from some other ailment to food poisoning. Investigations also revealed the presence of another pesticide, Dichkorvus, widely used in China to kill mosquitos and other insect pests and sometimes use to give bootleg liquor a “punchy flavor.” There were no reports of problems related to Dichkorvus.

Gyoza Scare Investigation in China

The dumplings in question’tezukuri Gyoza (handmade gyoza dumplings) and Tezukusamui Hitokuchi (handmade bite-size gyoza dumplings) “were produced by Tianyang Food in Hebei Province in China during early October 2007 and sold by JT Foods at Coop grocery stores in November in Hyogo and Chiba prefectures in Japan. Chinese officials said that the “no problems were detected at gyoza factory” and said it passed 24 quality checks since February 2007.

A lot questions were raised about where the poisoning took place. Japanese investigators insisted that the evidence indicated that the dumplings were most likely contaminated in China. One Chinese official suggested that the gyoza may have been contaminated deliberately in Japan to create friction between China and Japan or damage business for Chinese exporters. A tiny hole was found in the bag of gyoza that sickened three members of a family in Hyogo. The bags that sickened to family in Chiba contained no holes,

The gyoza was boxed soon after production and remained in these boxes while it was shipped to Japan. Gyoza earmarked for export was inspected at the factory rather than at a customs inspection station. The gyoza remained on sale one month after the first poisoning which raised question about why it wasn’t taken off the shelves earlier.

Stores that sold gyoza---especially that produced at the Tuangyang factory---pulled their products from the shelves. Restaurants and schools avoid Chinese products out of safety concerns after he gyoza scare A survey found that 83 percent of Japanese were worried about food safety,

The investigation was problematic. Many of the workers at the plant where the gyoza was made---which employs between 2,000 and 4,000 people---for example, left shortly after the business was implicated in the scandal. The workers were paid about $140 a month for working 10 hours and were paid less than other workers in the area. There were reports of angry workers at the factory and some speculation that a disgruntled employee may have deliberately poisoned the dumplings.

In August 2008, the Chinese government did an about face and said the gyoza was likely tainted in China. It reported that poisoned products produced Tianynag Food in Hebei Province not only were consumed in Japan but also were consumed in China as well. The details of how the methamidophes entered the gyoza is still under investigation.

Large amounts of frozen gyoza recalled following the revelations of food poisoning were distributed, much of it given free to workers as a bonus, to several steel firms in China. There were no reports of people suffering from food poisoning who worked at the steel firms and ate the gyoza.

China’s state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission ordered Hebei Iron & Steel to buy the recalled gyoza to bail out the food manufacturers under the commission’s supervision.

Several people at the Tianyang Food company were detained and family members of factory employees were questioned. No hard evidence was found linking anyone to the poisonings.

China’s food exports to Japan plunged 30 percent in February 2008 after the gyoza scare.

In April 2010, authorities in China announced they had arrested a 36-year-old former employee at Tianyang named Lu Yueting for poisoning the gyoza that sickened 10 people. The suspect---a disgruntled temporary worker upset that he was treated differently than full time workers and his wide was not given a bonus when she took maternity leave---allegedly injected the gyoza with a pesticide on three separate occasions between October and December 2007. According to newspaper reports he used methamidophos pesticide taken from the cleaning department of the Tianyang Food Factory and syringes thrown away by a medical institution. The Chinese government banned the Chinese media from covering the arrest and were told to use official Xinhua news releases.

Tainted Eggs and Honey

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In September 2008, eggs tainted with melamine were found in Dalian in northeast China. A few weeks later melamine-tainted eggs that originated from the same city turned up in Hong Kong. The eggs were processed by Dalian Hanwei Enterprise Group. Eggs in Hong Kong produced by Jingshan Pengchang Agricultural Products in Hubei Province were also found to have excessive amounts of melamine. These disclosures set off concerns that melamine-tainted livestock feed had entered the wider food chain and tainted a wide range of food including farm raised meats and fish.

An investigators revealed that the source of the melamine was poultry feed, The owner of Chinese feed factory suspected of adding melamine to his feed was arrested. In the meantime an official in the Agriculture Ministry said tainted eggs were an isolated case and investigators were ordered to crack the “dark” networks selling contaminated animals feed. Inspectors found that more than 500 feed-makers and animals breeding farms that engaged in illegal or questionable practices, with intensive investigation of 27 companies, some of which were likened organized crime syndicates and “black nests of gangsters.”

There are also concerns about Chinese honey. In1997 Chinese beehives were almost wiped by a bacterial epidemic. Instead of destroying the hive beekeepers treated them with chloramphenicol, a toxic antibiotic linked with the serious blood disorder aplastic anemia. Some hive are still tainted

Anti-Freeze-Tainted Vinegar

In August 2011, AP reported, vinegar tainted with antifreeze was suspected of killing 11 people and sickening 120 after a communal Ramadan meal at a village in Hotan China's far western region of Xinjiang. Investigators suspect the victims consumed vinegar that was put in two plastic barrels that had previously been used to store toxic antifreeze, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday.

The victims were Muslims who were sharing an evening meal after the daily fast observed during the holy month of Ramadan. Xinhua said children as young as 6 were among the dead. One person among the 120 sickened was still in critical condition. China’s food safety problems are well-known and revenge attacks using rat poison or other chemicals also occur. But accidental contamination is also a problem, caused by low hygiene standards, particularly in rural areas, and weak quality control by regulators.

China Destroys Ikea Cake, Nestle Chocolate

In March 2013, Associated Press reported: “Chinese authorities say they have destroyed nearly two tons of chocolate cake imported by Sweden's Ikea for violating food quality standards. The Shanghai quarantine bureau said this week that Kraft cream cheese and 2.7 tons of Nestle chocolate bars also were among dozens of imported products destroyed in its latest round of quality inspections. [Source: Associated Press, March 5, 2013]

The Shanghai quarantine bureau said it destroyed 1,872 kilos (4,100 pounds) of chocolate almond cake imported by Ikea that it said had excessive levels of coliform bacteria. Ikea spokeswoman Ylva Magnusson said the cakes were destroyed in November and December but the company's head office had only found out about it on Monday. "The product was stopped and destroyed. So none of the cakes made it to our restaurants," she said. Magnusson told The Associated Press that Ikea on Tuesday also had withdrawn chocolate and butterscotch almond cakes from its restaurants in 23 countries after a batch was found to be contaminated with the coliform bacteria. The cake, made by a Swedish supplier, was withdrawn before it was sold in Ikea restaurants. "It posed no health hazard as it was never sold," she said.

The Nestle chocolate contained too much sorbitol, a sweetener that in large amounts can cause bowel problems, the agency said in a statement. Phone calls to representatives for Nestle were not answered. In an emailed statement, Kraft Foods China said it imported a batch of cheese products from the U.S. to be used only as internal samples. The company, which is part of Mondelez International Inc., said the products didn't receive certification by the expiration date. "We hereby sincerely apologize for all the concerns and doubts brought to consumers by this incident," the statement said.

Toxic Buns in China

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In April 2011, CCTV reported: “Is anything safe to eat anymore? Just the other day, we told you about the glow-in-the-dark pork being sold in Pudong. Now, apparently, it's the mantou, or the processed steamed buns we need to be watching out for.In an investigative report on CCTV2 last night, an undercover reporter visited the Shanghai Shenglu Food Company in Baoshan district to observe the manufacturing process. [Source:, April 12, 2011]

Here's what he found: 1) Buns past their expiry date and returned from the supermarkets were thrown into the mixers to produce new buns. 2) Sodium cyclamate, an artificial sweetener, potassium sorbate, a food preservative, were added, although none of these additives were listed as ingredients. 3) What's being sold as corn flour buns has no corn in it, just yellow colouring. 4) Chemicals were added in random amounts, according to "feeling". 5) Food was handled without the use of gloves

Shenglu is one of the bigger processed bun manufacturers in Shanghai, producing about 30,000 mantou's that are sent to about 400 retail stores across the city everyday, including Hualian and Lianhua supermarkets. A massive recall has already been ordered and the Shanghai Industrial and Commercial Administrative Bureau has promised a city-wide inspection.

Six Die after China Cook Mistakes Poison for Flour

In November 2007, Reuters reported: “A Chinese cook who mistook a packet of rat poison for flour when making rice dumplings inadvertently killed himself and five others, state media reports. The six died after eating dumpling soup last week, prompting a police investigation to see if any crime had been committed, the Shanghai Daily said. Chen Ruyan, who worked at a recycling station in the central province of Hubei, was preparing lunch last Sunday. "In the process, Chen found the rice dough he was preparing for making "tangyuan" (rice dumplings) was quite watery and he decided to add more rice flour," the paper said. "Unfortunately, he mistook rat poison that had been placed together with other condiments as flour and mixed it into the dough." [Source: Reuters, November 19, 2007]

Investigators found Chen, who sold rat poison as a business, had put the chemicals in the kitchen when he moved home. Reports of usually non-fatal food poisoning at school canteens and restaurants, especially in the countryside, are common.

Gutter Oil in China

In March 2011, David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “Regulators are investigating whether restaurants throughout China are creating food hazards by cooking with recycled oil, some tainted with food waste, and prominence given to the issue in the state-controlled media suggests that the problem could be widespread. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, March 31, 2010]

The State Food and Drug Administration issued a nationwide emergency notice telling health bureaus to investigate the sources of cooking oil in mid-March. The notice came shortly after a professor and a group of students at Wuhan Polytechnic University announced that they had found widespread use of recycled oil in their region in an undercover investigation. The professor, He Dongping, asserted that recycled oil was being used to prepare 1 in 10 meals in China.

Regulators are now searching for illegal oil recycling mills, and some health bureaus have begun releasing the names of restaurants and food establishments that were found to be using questionable oil. Last November, regulators in southern China raided several workshops for turning discarded waste---possibly even sewage---into cooking oil.

In the city of Chengdu, in southwestern China, food safety officials released the names of 13 restaurants that were found to be using illegal cooking oil. The restaurants specialized in hot pot, a popular simmered dish. City residents voiced anger at Chengdu regulators for having delayed the release of some of the names of the implicated restaurants, according to the English-language newspaper China Daily. Here in Shanghai, regulators have warned that illegal cooking oil could be a problem because a large portion of restaurant food grease goes unaccounted for.

Huang Fenghong, deputy director of the Oil Crops Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said the use of illegal cooking oil was a serious problem in China. ‘some low-end restaurants establish stable buy-and-sell relationships with underground oil recyclers,” he said in a telephone interview this week. ‘some oil recyclers just dig out the oil from drains, because high-end restaurants seldom sell that drainage oil.”

Crackdown on Gutter Oil

In September 2011, AP reported: “Chinese police have detained 32 people in a nationwide crackdown on "gutter oil," or old kitchen oil that has been illegally recycled, authorities said. The Ministry of Public Security said in a statement on its website that police had seized 100 tons (90 metric tons) of the potentially harmful oil in 14 provinces. The campaign is part of an effort to clean up China's food safety record. [Source: AP, September 13, 2011]

Police in Henan and the eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Shandong have found more than 100 tonnes of the recycled oil illegally made from leftovers taken from gutters, the Ministry of Public Security said in a statement. The ministry said six workshops were closed, including one operated by Jinan Green Bio Oil Co., a business that claimed to be turning kitchen oil into fuel but that was actually churning out recycled cooking oil that it passed off as new. Recycled oil can contain carcinogens and traces of aflatoxin, a potentially deadly mold.

"Not only did we destroy a criminal chain that was illegally turning gutter oil into food oil, we also unveiled the greed of the criminals and pulled back the curtain on the immoral acts of those producing this poisonous and harmful food oil," the statement said. It didn't specify what charges the 32 people in detention would face or say when the crackdown started.

Reporter Killed Because of the Cooking Oil Scam?

AFP reported: “A Chinese journalist who had been following a scandal involving the sale of cooking oil made from leftovers taken from gutters has been stabbed to death, police and state media said. Li Xiang, 30, a reporter with Luoyang Television Station in the central province of Henan, was knifed more than 10 times as he returned home from a karaoke session with friends, the Zhengzhou Evening News reported. [Source: AFP, September 20 2011]

The laptop computer Li had been carrying was missing and police were treating the case as a murder-robbery, but have not ruled other motives, the report added. The last post on Li's micro-blog on September 15 said web users "had complained that Luanchuan county (in Henan) has dens manufacturing gutter cooking oil, but the food safety commission replied that they didn't find any".

Bloggers said they suspected Li's death was related to his previous reports on the "gutter" cooking oil cases."Luoyang Television Station reporter Li Xiang got stabbed to death, I suspect it's related to his reports on 'gutter' cooking oil," a web user said on Sina's popular social networking site Weibo. "Li Xiang's stabbing death is the unfortunate outcome of investigating the gutter cooking oil cases," another user said.

In September 2011, police in central Henan Province arrested two men suspected of killing Li. Police in the city of Luoyang said the murder was not connected with the gutter oil scandal. They said the two suspects killed Mr. Li during a robbery early morning outside the gate of his apartment complex. The men stole his laptop, camera and wallet after stabbing him 10 times, the police said. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, September 21, 2011]

Mr. Li’s employer at Luoyang Television has expressed doubts that his murder was connected to his work, saying he seldom took on investigative projects. Violence against muckraking journalists is rare in China although intimidation by the police and government officials is not uncommon.

Heinz Baby Cereal Recall

Adam Jourdan of Reuters wrote: “The entanglement of H.J. Heinz Co. in China's latest food scare highlights a key concern for international and local firms - how to keep track of ingredients from diverse sources in a country where food supply tracing technologies are far from the norm. The U.S. food maker forced to recall some infant cereal from store shelves due to excess levels of lead. [Source: Adam Jourdan, Reuters, August 25, 2014 ^^]

“Heinz said it had identified the supplier and ingredient - a skimmed soybean powder - responsible for the recall of four batches of its AD Calcium Hi-Protein Cereal from stores in eastern China, but added the firm needed to do more to keep suppliers in check. "We will keep improving traceable food safety control systems from 'farm to factory'," Heinz said in a statement posted on its Chinese website. ^^

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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