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There have been a number of scandals in China involving food: carcinogenic noodles; poisoned watermelon seeds; water-filled pancakes; apples coated with cancer-causing chemicals; sardines covered with bacteria; mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides; applesauce with acid; honey tainted with antibiotics, iron and lead; substandard wine; water-injected pork and chemical-tainted bean sprouts. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 300 million mainland Chinese are affected by food poisoning every year and food safety problems cost the Chinese economy as much as $13 billion a year in medical costs and productivity losses. According to the New China News Agency and Chinese Academy of Preventive Medical Sciences, 500 people suffer food poisoning every day and one third of the foods labeled “nutritious for children” have practically no nutritional value whatsoever.

In 2007 there were food scares involving toxic fish, tainted pork, and juice made with unsafe color additives. In Japan there were complaints of shrimp, other seafood, preserved pears, boiled mushrooms and baked eel imported from China that had high levels of bacteria, drugs or toxic chemicals. The FDA halted shipments of shrimp and eel after detecting carcinogens in 25 percent of the samples tested. Samples of monkfish exported by China contained high levels of puffer fish toxins.

Food imported to Japan from China that violated Japan’s food sanitation laws has included fresh matsutake mushrooms with acetochler, dried shititake mushrooms with sulfer dioxide, frozen stewed conger eel, frozen cut squid and frozen boiled crab with coliform bacteria, honey with chloramphenicolm oolang tea with triazophos, yakitori and sausage with excessive amounts of bacteria and charcoal broiled eel with malachite green semicarbazide and excessive bacteria.

The mainland's food industry has long been plagued with food safety problems. Various hazardous additives, such as Sudan red and malachite green, have been found in a range of foods from fish to fast food in recent years. Instead of pushing for more transparency on food safety, the party's propaganda department has tried to ban such reports, saying negative reports could destroy the industry. In August 2014, Xinhua reported that a local chef had gone on trial accused of painting abalones and goose feet to make the dishes visually more appealing.

In February 2011, the World Anti-Doping Agency began an investigation into the use of steroids in raising of cattle after several athletes blamed their positive doping tests on steroid-tainted beef. Duck farmers have added cancer-causing Sudan dye to their animal feed to make the yolks redder and bring a higher price. Toxic chemicals have been added to rice to make it whiter. In 2002, the import of Chinese honey was blocked in Europe and the United States because samples tested positive for chloramphenicol, a banned antibiotic linked with a fatal blood condition. Bee owners give their bees antibiotics when they are sick because it is a cheap way for th bees to get better quickly.

Some food products have been tainted with harmful pesticides which the government has banned but farmers can still buy and use. In Japan, sulfur dioxide was found in shiitake mushrooms, acetrchlor was discovered in fresh matsutake mushrooms and triazophos turned up in oolong tea. Pieces of metal have shown up in Chinese-made lollipops sold in the United States. A blade-lie pieces and a staple were found in Michigan in Pokeman Valentine cards and Pops. A popular shrimp crack snack produced in China and sold in South Korea was found to have a rat’s head in it. The Hangzhou restauranteur Dai Jiangjun told The New Yorker, “You can’t trust the ingredients you buy in the markets, Vegetables laced with chemicals. Fake birds’ nest held together by glue. Even hairy crabs from Yangcheng Lake — most of them are farmed elsewhere and made to “take a shower” in the lake before the go to market.”

Websites and Sources: China Food ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Digital Times list of articles ;

50-Year-Old Meat and Zombie Chicken Feet Sold in China

In 2013 Kavitha A. Davidson wrote in the Huffington Post, “There's something fishy about these chickens. Chinese police have uncovered an illegal food storage site in China's southern city of Nanning that reportedly contained chicken feet nearly a half century old. According to the South China Morning Post, more than 20 tonnes of expired meat were seized in the raid, including beef tripe, cartilage, and the aforementioned chicken feet, some of which dated all the way back to 1967. The site was busted back in May, though the details of the operation have only been made public recently. [Source: Kavitha A. Davidson, Huffington Post, July 12, 2013]

A Xinhua report cited by the South China Morning Post notes that the chicken feet were smuggled across the border from Vietnam still frozen. Once in China, they were processed with various chemicals, including bleach, to add weight and improve their coloring, making them appear fresh. Chinese consumers took to the internet to react to the bizarre news. Some users called the contraband "Jiangshi Fengzhao," or "zombie chicken feet," while others had a more tongue-in-cheek response, postulating that the expired feet might "have a flavor of history," Xinhua notes. This latest revelation once again highlights consumers' concerns over food safety in China. According to the South China Morning Post, border police have intercepted seven different smuggling attempts in the past year, seizing 20 million yuan (about $3.3 million) of illegal chicken feet.

Dan Levin and Crystal Tse wrote in 2015: The Chinese news media announced that the authorities had seized nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of smuggled frozen meat across China, some of it dating to the 1970s. The caches of beef, pork and chicken wings, worth up to $483 million, were discovered in a nationwide crackdown that spanned 14 provinces and regions, Xinhua reported. Typically, the meat was shipped from abroad to Hong Kong and then brought to Vietnam, where traders would smuggle the product across the Chinese border without declaring it to customs officials or going through required inspection and quarantine procedures. From there, criminals would often transport the meat in unrefrigerated trucks to save costs and refreeze it several times before it reached customers. “It was too smelly. A truck full of it. I almost threw up when the door opened, ” Zhang Tao, a customs administration official in Changsha, the capital of central Hunan Province, was quoted as saying by Xinhua. The authorities in Changsha seized 800 tons of frozen meat on June 1 and arrested 20 suspected members of two gangs. [Source: Dan Levin and Crystal Tse, New York Times, June 24, 2015]

Impact of China’s Food Safety Problems

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Concerns about food safety have reached China’s space program. According to an article in the Beijing Times thousands of square kilometers of farmland has been aside in Gansu Province to grow organic food for China’s astronauts. No motorcycles or cars are allowed near the land to ensure “zero pollution.” “When the astronauts first reach the launch base, several good cows are selected and put into isolation for a month to be sure there are no antibiotics in their system,” the report said. [Source: Hannah Gardner, The Times, June 24, 2012]

Adam Jourdan of Reuters wrote: “Consumers in China are highly sensitive to issues of food safety, especially with baby products, after powdered milk tainted with the industrial chemical melamine led to the deaths of at least six infants in 2008. Danone SA and Abbott Laboratories saw infant formula sales in China plunge last year after concerns over a potentially fatal bacteria in a supplier's product. Tests later showed the initial finding was incorrect.. [Source: Adam Jourdan, Reuters, August 25, 2014 ^^]

According to Week in China: “When more than 10,000 dead pigs turned up in the Huangpu River, the general public was soon asking how they got there. Yet the mystery has remained just that, having never been satisfactorily explained by the authorities. This absence has led to the usual theorising by China’s half a billion internet users. Perhaps the most plausible theory centres on a rather grisly set of middlemen, who routinely buy diseased pigs from farmers for sale at discounted prices to restaurants (this grim meat then goes into the wok with likely malign consequences for diners’ digestive systems). International media has suggested that a crackdown from Shanghai’s government on the sale of diseased pork temporarily drove out the black market traders, but also strangled the usual disposal mechanism. So when an epidemic hit the pig population in nearby Jiaxing, farmers responded by dumping their dead animals in the river. [Source: Week in China, April 12, 2013 ^*^]

Public Response in China to Food Safety Problems

“I’m really worried about food safety,” Li Suhua, 57, told the Washington Post. She is retired and was shopping for her family recently at a fruit and vegetable market. She said she comes to the market two or three hours before she starts cooking, to give herself time to soak leafy green vegetables to rid them of pesticides. As for meat, she said, “I’m even more worried. We haven’t eaten chicken for a long time, because I heard they gave hormones to chickens...It’s really horrifying.”

China's sports teams have enacted strict bans on athletes eating pork because of the fear that clenbuterol, a common but illegal steroid fed to pigs, can cause false positives on drug tests. Female judo champion Tong Wen was banned from competing internationally last year after a test showed traces of the drug, but the ban by the International Judo Federation was overturned in February after she said she had never knowingly ingested clenbuterol. "Now we have a special team that takes care of procuring food. We are more cautious than ever before. We buy pork only from organic farms through a channel that the government has approved," said judo coach Wu Weifeng.

"We have a saying in China that 'food is the people's god,' so obviously it is very scary for ordinary people when things like this happen," Xiao Andong, a veterinary feed expert with the Hunan Institute of Veterinary Feed Control, told the Los Angeles Times. Xiao was one of the investigators in the wedding poisoning case, but he said tests were inconclusive because the food had been consumed by the time experts were called in.

The sheer number of recent scandals has led many in China to question whether the country is facing a moral and ethical crisis as much as a food safety one — and why the push for slightly higher profits would prompt some people involved in the food chain to heedlessly endanger the health of humans.

Food Safety and the Chinese Government

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Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘such incidents cut to the quick of the weaknesses in China's monolithic one-party system. Chinese authorities are painfully aware that people will lose confidence in a government that cannot give them assurances about what they eat. They are equally aware that tainted foods could cause what communist authorities fear most: social unrest. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2011]

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have decried the lack of ethics among food producers."Food safety concerns the people's interests and livelihoods, social stability and the future of socialism with Chinese characteristics," is how the Supreme Court put it in its notice last month accompanying the announcement of the death penalty. The government's efforts are looking frantic. Propaganda posters put up in recent weeks in Beijing restaurants show a clenched fist about to smash into a man in a chef's toque with the message, "Crack down on illegal additives!"

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, Now, food safety has become a top priority for the Chinese government, which in the past was more concerned about food security — having enough for people to eat. Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who is slated to become prime minister in a leadership reshuffle next year, has taken charge of the campaign to improve the safety of food. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

Since 2008, when six children died and 300,000 were sickened by melamine-tainted baby formula, the Chinese government has enacted ever-more-strict policies to ensure food safety, including a directive last month from the Supreme Court calling for the death penalty in cases where people die as a result of tainted foods. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2011]

The mass poisoning at the April 23 wedding in Wufeng village prompted provincial authorities to decree that samples of ingredients must be inspected in advance for banquets with more than 100 people. It's doubtful, however, that anybody will heed the regulation — China is famous for promulgating laws that are never enforced. There is no equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: A myriad of different agencies reporting to various ministries, including the Agriculture Ministry and Health Ministry, tend to kick responsibility from one to another. Offenders are not usually prosecuted until something goes badly wrong, as in the baby formula case, in which two people were executed.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also has officials working on the ground in China, increasing inspections of Chinese firms that export products to the U.S. market and helping China build “technical capacity” to improve its food safety regime.

Media Response in China to Food Safety Problems

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, Chinese government condemnation of food tampering “has sparked an aggressive kind of investigative reporting in the government-controlled media that is rarely applied to other aspects of society. “The top leaders have attached more importance to food safety. That gives the media more freedom to report on it from different angles,” said Zheng Fengtian, an agribusiness professor and vice dean of Renmin University’s agriculture school. “The problem has always been there, but the media didn’t give it much attention before.” [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

To show its seriousness about the mounting list of problems, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported late last month that the government will offer rewards to informants who provide tip-offs about tainted food and has promised to protect the identity of the tipsters to guard against “revenge attacks.” According to a new edict, “Government departments at all levels must set up dedicated funds for a reward system for reporting on food safety,” Xinhua said.

Journalists in Anhui province also reported finding markets using a harmful food additive to change the appearance and taste of pork to make it seem like beef. A reporter used the additive, called “beef extract,” and found that it took just a few minutes to alter the taste. The markets were selling the “fake beef” for twice the cost of pork.

A Web site called Throw it out the Window, which tracks food safety scandals across the country, has reported 494 cases of food contamination this year. The site, started in June by a fed-up 25-year-old graduate student and a group of 33 volunteers, has recorded 2,230 cases since 2004.

Reasons for Food Safety Problems in China

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Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “And just why are there so many food problems in China? The answers, expert said, are complex, involving China’s system of myriad tiny farms, tens of thousands of small food-processing factories scattered across this vast country, and a regulatory system in which enforcement is divided among as many as 13 government ministries and departments. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

“Each department is only responsible for a certain cycle, such as cultivation, production or sales,” Wu Yongning, chief scientist for food safety at the Ministry of Health, told the Washington Post. “It’s really difficult to control risk with this multi-layered management.” Said Zheng, the Renmin University professor: “It’s a long distance from the field to the mouth.” In addition, experts said, despite a number of high-profile busts, the chances of getting caught and punished for producing or selling tainted food remains relatively small.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The incentive to cheat is greater than ever before, with inflation at its highest level in nearly three years. Food prices in May were up 11.7 percent from last year, and flooding this month is expected to push them even higher. "On the one hand, ordinary people pay more attention to food safety and nutrition, but on the other hand, whenever you see a big crowd at the market it is because something is on sale," said Luo Yunbo, dean of the food sciences college at China Agricultural University in Beijing. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2011]

Adam Jourdan of Reuters wrote: “China has soaring levels of soil and water pollution, with seven out of the top 10 farming provinces amongst the areas most exposed to heavy metal pollution such as lead, according to a March report from HSBC. Major firms, including fast food chains McDonald's and Burger King Worldwide Inc, said they had put in place stringent testing and auditing procedures in China to avoid issues such as contamination from water and soil pollution. "We have rigorous and overlapping internal and external testing procedures and audits to ensure that our suppliers in China, and around the world, meet our strict specifications," said Vijay Guyah, a Singapore-based spokesman for Burger King. [Source: Adam Jourdan, Reuters, August 25, 2014 ^^]

Food Safety, Farmer Ignorance in China and Lake of Food Tracking

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “In many of the cases, particularly those involving pesticides and other chemicals, experts said the rural farmers often do not understand the harmful effects on humans. For example, the case of exploding watermelons in Jiangsu province in May was thought to be at least partially caused by farmers’ overuse of a plant growth accelerator called forchlorfenuron.” [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

In Sichuan this year, police acting on a tip arrested a father and son whose company made xiewang, a local delicacy known as “bloody tofu” made of congealed duck or pig’s blood. The pair told police that they had been adding formaldehyde to their produce to make it smoother and extend its shelf life, according to local media reports. Formaldehyde can cause brain, colon and nose tumors in humans.

Adam Jourdan of Reuters wrote: “Barcode tracking systems for produce, common in the United States and Europe, are largely absent. "Standardized traceability of food products does not currently exist in China. It's a long way from it," said David Mahon, Beijing-based managing director of an investment firm focusing on China's food and beverage sectors. China's food traceability systems and regulation were classified as "poor" in an August report from the Institute of Food Technologists. This was the lowest score of around 20 countries included. [Source: Adam Jourdan, Reuters, August 25, 2014 ^^]

“Food safety barcodes store details such as the farm of origin, dates of harvest, planting, storage and shipment, meaning clients down the line can trace a particular batch and find out how and why any issues occurred. Some firms have tried to bring the system into wider use in China - French grocer Carrefour SA launched a barcoding system last year for fruit and vegetables - but the technology has failed to catch on due to the high costs of implementation throughout scattered supply chains. ^^

Agricultural supply chains in China tend to be highly fragmented with most farms still small-scale. Even with stringent auditing processes of suppliers - which multinational firms such as Heinz would carry out - it's difficult to keep track of all suppliers along the line, some of whom may be tempted to subcontract to cut costs. What's more, while China's regulators have tight food safety rules, industry insiders said the watchdogs simply did not have the manpower to properly enforce them. "It's not that the technology doesn't exist in China, it's just the chains are too fragmented," said an industry executive in China, who previously ran a food processing plant serving multinational firms in China and abroad. ^^

Deliberate Food Tampering in China

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Vegetarian mock meat
Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “At times, the addition of dangerous chemicals is more malfeasance than ignorance. A well-known Shanghai steam bun producer in April was found to be adding chemical sweeteners and yellow coloring to buns that were past their “sell by” date, repackaging them as new and re-selling them. Several managers at the bun company were arrested, and four Shanghai officials were disciplined for “dereliction of duty” for failing to detect the scam. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

A scandal with pigs involves an additive called clenbuterol, known as “lean meat powder,” used to burn fat and accelerate muscle-building in swine — creating what became known here as “bodybuilder pigs.” The substance was found in pigs in Henan province. The chemical can cause illness in humans if ingested through the pig’s meat.

To make some breeds of fish mature more quickly, aquatic farmers feed them ground-up birth-control pills, which cost virtually nothing because of China's strict limits on family size. In April, authorities in Hefei province busted businesses that were selling a glaze that makes pork look and smell like more expensive beef — bad news in a country with more than 20 million Muslims.

Internet users one can easily find sites and posting that advise people how to substitute safe ingredients with unsafe ones. Until recently, directions were circulating on the Internet about how to make fake eggs out of a gelatinous compound comprised mostly of sodium alginate, which is then poured into a shell made out of calcium carbonate. Companies marketing the kits promised that you could make a fake egg for one-quarter the price of a real one. Shanghainese love their steamed buns and were outraged this year to learn that the manufacturer of a popular brand was using dye to make cheap wheat buns look like the more expensive black rice buns. In the southern city of Dongguan, 17 noodle manufacturers were caught adding ink and paraffin wax to give their products the look and texture of more expensive varieties.

Chinese Believe 11-Year-Old Boy Rather Than Government on Tests of Bleached Mushrooms

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“Mainlanders believe a primary school pupil rather than government departments when it comes to a report that 81 per cent of mushrooms on sale in Beijing were bleached with harmful chemicals.” Choi Chi-yuk wrote in the South China Morning Post. “Zhang Hao, an 11-year-old Beijing primary pupil, became one of the most mentioned names across the mainland after a simple food safety test he conducted, with the help of experts, was reported in the Beijing News a week ago.” [Source: Choi Chi-yuk, South China Morning Post, December 6, 2010]

“Hao came up with the idea of the tests when his mother barred him from eating mushrooms, one of his favorite foods, in February, after media reports said some were bleached. The boy began his study in July, randomly choosing 16 types of mushrooms, including 14 samples of fresh ones and two of dry. He used a microscope to look for contamination with bleaching agents, working under the supervision of a PhD student in a microbiology laboratory at China Agricultural University.”

“His findings were dramatic. Bleach had been used on 13 of the 14 fresh mushrooms, according to the tests, reported yesterday. The dry mushrooms were found to be untainted. After reading the news reports, several consumers told Xinhua they were afraid to buy and eat mushrooms. According to mainland health experts, consuming bleaching chemicals can damage the liver and trigger asthma and skin allergies.

“The day after Hao's survey was released, an official with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Industry and Commerce criticised it as far from scientific, the Beijing News reported.The Beijing Municipal Food Safety Office followed up with a survey of its own which found that more than 97 per cent of mushrooms on sale in the capital were free of bleaching agents and were safe to eat.”

Food Problem Hoaxes in China

In July 2007, a video showed a restaurant cutting up cardboard, softening it with caustic soda and adding pork juice for flavoring and using the concoction as filling for their steamed buns. The video was first shown on a local Chinese television station and later picked up and shown around the world. The video turned out to be a hoax. The television reporter that fabricated the story was given a one year prison sentence. Even after that many ordinary Chinese continued to believe the story was true.

In January 2007, rumors began circulating in text messages on cell phones in Beijing about pork contaminated with a deadly virus. Sales or pork plummeted by two thirds according to the Chinese media. The rumors turned out to be untrue.

Food Poisonings in China There were 258 food poisoning deaths in China in 2007, 32 percent more than the previous year. The rise was attributed to higher summer temperatures which made it easier for bacteria to grow. There were more than an 11 cases in which more than 100 people fell from ill poisoning. In all 13,280 people fell sick from poisonings.

In April 2007, one person died and more than 200 became sick after eating food that had been contaminated with rat poison at a restaurant at the Heilongjiang Provincial Hospital of Traditional Medicine. The victims, which included patients and staff, all ate porridge for breakfast. Investigators suspect the water was contaminated with poison.

In March 2008 over 100 children became sick after drinking a bad batch of milk. Around 75 started vomiting immediately after drinking the milk, which was found to contain virus which can cause an infection of the digestive track

Poisoned Food in China

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Tea Eggs
In September 2002, 40 people, many of them children, died and another 100 were sickened when they ingested breakfast snacks spiked with rat poison at a snack bar in Tangshan, a town in coastal Jiangsu province. Some of the victims had blood dripping from their mouths and ears. Later a rival snack bat owner confessed that he poisoned the snacks because he was jealous about the snack bar’s success.

Poisoning, particularly with a kind of very strong rat poison called Dushuqiang, is a serious problem in China. In October 2004, a woman killed 10 people in her village, Lichan in Hubei Province, by putting rat poison in the funeral lunch of her dead husband. A restaurant owner was sentenced to death for poisoning the donkey soup of rival that sickened 148 people. There have also been cases of teachers poisoning students and a zookeeper poisoning animals to spite his boss. One man in Shaoyang city in Hunan Province killed 13 people, including his wife, and tried to poison to death another 24 people because he had a dream he could be cured of his long-term illness if he killed 12 people.

Poisoning is one of the top 10 causes of death for Chinese between the ages of 5 and 29. The problem is serious enough that banners are hung that condemn the use of rat poison. Making, storing or selling Dushuqiang is a crime punishable by death. Some have suggested that poisoning is so common because guns are difficult for ordinary people to obtain and people feel they have few options if they are treated unfairly.

In February 2009, two migrant workers were sentenced to death for poisoning food at a snack bar in the southern city of Shenzhen that led to two deaths and the sickening of 61 others. One was sentenced to death outright. The other was sentenced to death with the chance the sentence would be commuted to life. The poisoning were part of a business dispute.

Students in Guizhou Riot over Mass Food Poisoning

In 2015, thousands of disgruntled students smashed up their high school campus in in the early hours of the morning after an outbreak of food poisoning made hundreds of them sick. Radio Free Asia reported: “Students at Guizhou’s Puding County No. 1 High School ran riot through their dormitories, smashing windows and prompting China’s ruling Communist Party county leaders to rush to the school to deal with the incident, the county government said in a statement on its website. “It said no one was hurt, but made no mention of the mass food poisoning incident, prompting a slew of critical comments on social media sites. [Source: Radio Free Asia, March 20, 2015]

“Social media posts said 3,000 students at the high school’s Hengshui campus near Guizhou’s Anshun city had also staged large-scale protests after more than 400 students became ill. “The local authorities sent in large numbers of police and have locked down the whole area, ” one tweet said. “But the police are just standing around and keeping watch; they didn’t dare to intervene to stop the students.” “During the protests, some of the students had smashed windows in the school canteen and in their dormitory buildings in protest at the poor food quality at the school, social media user @yuni said.

“A doctor who answered the phone at the Puding County People’s Hospital said that “at least 10 students had been hospitalized there for food poisoning. “I’m not sure exactly how many of them there are in our hospital, but it’s more than 10, ” the doctor said. “They’re not doing too badly, ” he added. “Nobody is in critical condition, but some have been kept in for observation.” He said others had already been discharged. “Some students went home after they were put on a drip, ” the doctor said. He declined to give a cause for the food poisoning.

In November 2014, more than 3,000 students at a technical college in Guangdong rioted following a standoff with college management over poor food quality in the canteen. Enraged by overpriced and poor food, as well as a rule banning the ordering of takeouts, students smashed windows in the controversial on-campus store and the canteen as well as computer equipment in college offices.

Two Children Die in Mass Poisoning at Chinese Kindergarten

In March 2014, two children died after more than 30 were poisoned at a kindergarten in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. Austin Ramzy of the New York Times wrote: “The source of the poison was suspected to have been snacks brought to the school by a pupil and shared with classmates, the state news agency Xinhua reported, quoting a Qiubei County government official. Investigators have yet to say whether they suspect the poisoning was intentional or an accident. [Source: Austin Ramzy, Sinosphere blog, New York Times, March 21, 2014]

The children ingested tetramine, a banned rat poison that has turned up in several deadly incidents in China. The government has tried for years to stop stores from selling the poison, known in Chinese as dushuqiang, but it remains widely available. The children at the kindergarten in Pinglong village began showing signs of illness on Wednesday afternoon. Two girls, ages 4 and 5, died, and another seven children remain in serious condition, Xinhua reported. The private kindergarten had been open just over a year and had not been officially certified, according to Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper.

, Beijing ordered a nationwide probe into safety at its kindergartens amid growing public outrage at the secret medication of pupils by some institutions and a slew of poisonings. In 2013, two students at a kindergarten in Hebei Province died after eating poisoned yogurt. The police said the yogurt had been laced with tetramine by the owners of another kindergarten who wanted to discredit the rival school.

Response to Food Safety Problems in China

On restauranteur in Beijing told the Los Angeles Times, “The biggest problem in the Chinese food industry is that customer’s don’t trust the chain and the chain doesn’t trust its suppliers — no one trust anyone.”

The Chinese media has admitted that “severe challenges” lie ahead in dealing with food safety. Prime Minister Wen Jibao said that “Food safety and product quality should be our top priority. It is not only an urgent task but an arduous and long term one.” A cabinet level committee to address food quality and safety was set up. Wu Yi, the highly-regarded female Vice Premier, was named as its head.

Chinese officials have repeatedly insisted that its food exports are 99 percent safe. Even so the government hired Ogilvy Public Relations, an international consultancy that specializes in crisis management, to address its food and drug safety problems.

The Chinese also blamed the foreign media for “viscously sensationalized coverage” and, insisted it was “playing up” China's food safety problems and had “ulterior motives.” A health ministry spokesman said, “The question of food safety is a problem the whole world faces. Foreign media are using irrelevant cases or just a few cases to make the safety issue much bigger than it is and have linked it to the success of hosting the Olympics.”

China has raised food safety issues with foreign companies. Coca-Cola’s berry flavored Fanta soft drink, imported from South Korea, was banned for containing too much benzoic acid, which can harm the liver and kidneys. Two batches of Pringles potato chips, “crispy baked” and ‘spicy salad sauce,” imported from the United States, were banned for containing the chemical potassium bromate, a chemical that may cause cancer.

The Chinese are developing a taste for organic food. Food safety scares have raised the demand from consumers. The biggest problem is trying to prevent people from passing off food as organic that really isn’t. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture certifies products as having restricted amounts of agricultural chemicals with its popular “Green Food” label, which can be found on products ranging from fruit to noodles to beer.

See Response to Poor Food and Drug Safety, Health

Food Safety Officials, Suicide and Executions

In August 2008, Wu Jianping, one of the highest-ranking food safety officials in China committed suicide by jumping from a building the day after prosecutors questioned him about his financial assets. A spokesman for the agency where he worked claimed the death was an accident, saying he accidently fell from the building.

Several other high ranking officials in the Food and Drug Administration have been found guilty of corruption-related crimes and sentenced to long prison sentences.

In July, 2007, China’s top food and health official, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed on corruption charges in connection with taking $850,000 in bribes from eight companies in return for approving untested drugs. He was executed within a few weeks of when a court handed down his death sentence. The swift move was largely seen as both an effort to reassure the international community that China was serious about tackling safety issues and an example of ‘slaughtering the chicken to warn the monkey” to keep other officials in line. It was the first time an official of such a high tank had been executed since 2000. Zheng’s execution was popular among ordinary Chinese.

Zheng clearly helped drugs companies that paid him off. One of them, Kangliyuan posted sales of $206 million in 2006, up from $26 million in 2002, despite the fact that many of the drugs it produced substituted neutral ingredients for real medicines and repackaged generic drugs as their own. Kangliyuan gave Zheng a lakeside house and thousands of dollars in bribes. More than 170,000 drugs that received authorization under Zheng’s tenure from 1998 to 2005 are now under review

Combating Food Problems in China

The Chinese government has responded to the problem of food safety by developing a four-color warning system from blue to red. Red means that at least 100 people have been sickened or 10 have died from eating contaminated food. Food SWAT teams have been created that quickly can be mobilized to a problem area and a sanitary grading system has been established for restaurants and hotels. A State Food and Drug Administration was created in 2003. But there still is no national food hygiene law.

The Chinese government launched nationwide inspections and announced a crackdown on illegal factories that make counterfeit food and drugs. More than 30,000 inspectors were sent across the country to inspect fish farms and seafood manufacturers to make sure they were not using banned substances. Those that were found to be using them were blacklisted or had their licenses revoked.

New regulations were passed and new mandates were issued that aimed to put the food industry under tighter supervision and punish those who sell dangerous products. The Chinese government ordered 41 food processing companies to halt exports to countries like the United States and Japan. Partly to address the problem of food and drug safety, China;’s food and drug regulatory agency was placed under the control if the Ministry of Health.

In early 2009, tougher food safety regulations were passed that promised to ensure food safety “from the production lie to the dinner table.” Many felt the regulations were meaningless unless they were going to be is strictly enforced by the government.

In February 2010, China set up a national food safety commission headed by powerful vice premier, Li Keqiang, who is expected to take Wen Jiabao’s place in 2013. The decision was made at a time when batches of melamine-spiked milk began seeping into the market again.

Chinese consumers are also taking action. Some Chinese shoppers have stopped shopping at small markets because they are unsanitary. Counterfeiting of foreign food products is also a problem. Ferrero Rocher chocolates of Italy have sued the Chinese maker of Tesore Dore — a chocolate and hazelnut treat wrapped in gold foil — at a court in Tianjin, China for stealing Ferrero’s product and packaging,

At the Xin Min Food Market banners hang from the ceiling that read “Guarantee the Safety of Our Food,” “Make our Lives More Civilized” and “Build a Clean Homeland,

Communist Party Elite Get First Dibs on Untainted and Organic Food

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Many of the nation's best food companies don't promote or advertise. They don't want the public to know that their limited supply is sent to Communist Party officials, dining halls reserved for top athletes, foreign diplomats, and others in the elite classes. The general public, meanwhile, dines on foods that are increasingly tainted or less than healthful — meats laced with steroids, fish from ponds spiked with hormones to increase growth, milk containing dangerous additives such as melamine, which allows watered-down milk to pass protein-content tests. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2011]

Organic farmers say they face pressure to sell their limited output to official channels. "The local government would like us to give more products to officials and work units, but we think it is important that individuals can enjoy our product," said Wang Zhanli, whose organic dairy in Yanqing, just beyond the most frequented tourist sections of the Great Wall, received certification in 2006. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2011]

At his Green Yard dairy, the technology is imported from Holland. The cows graze on grass free of pesticides and are milked in a sterile barn by women in white caps who look more like laboratory aides than milkmaids. On their organic diet, the cows produce about half the volume of conventional dairy cows, meaning that the supply is never enough, especially since the 2008 scandal in which tainted milk left six Chinese babies dead and sickened 300,000 people. Managers at the dairy say about two-thirds of their product goes to officials, state-owned enterprises, embassies and international schools. A limited quantity is sold at diplomatic compunds and a few select health food stores at prices nearly triple that for regular milk. "We're not Switzerland. Our population is way too big for everybody to eat organic food," said Hou Xuejun, general manager of the Green Yard dairy.

Image Sources: Asia Obscura

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.

Last updated October 2021

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