On a bustling corner near downtown Shanghai recently, some shoppers avoided the steamed buns sold by Zhu Qinghe (朱清河) in a street-side cubbyhole. Instead, they bought the packaged buns in the freezer section of Hualian, a supermarket chain store in the same building.
Big mistake: Zhu’s buns were soft, tasty and fresh, made every day, he said, at 3am. The supermarket’s, on the other hand, came from a filthy workshop where workers “recycled” buns after their sell-by date. The workers merely threw the stale buns into a vat, added water and flour and repackaged them to be sold anew.
It has been two years since China’s government, reeling from nationwide outrage over melamine-contaminated baby milk that sickened 300,000 infants and killed at least six, declared food safety a national priority. Since then, it has threatened, raided and arrested large numbers of shady food processors — and even executed a couple.
However, a stomach-turning string of food-safety scandals this spring, from recycled buns to contaminated pork, makes it clear that official efforts are falling short. Despite efforts to create a modern food-safety regimen, oversight remains utterly haphazard, in the hands of ill-trained, ill-equipped and outnumbered enforcers whose quick fixes are even more quickly undone.
“Most of them are working like headless chickens, having no clue what are the major food-borne diseases that need to be addressed or what are the major contaminants in the food process,” said Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety expert with the WHO’s Beijing office.
In recent weeks, China’s news media have reported sales of pork adulterated with the drug clenbuterol, which can cause heart palpitations; pork sold as beef after it was soaked in borax, a detergent additive; rice contaminated with cadmium, a heavy metal discharged by smelters; arsenic-laced soy sauce; popcorn and mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach; bean sprouts tainted with an animal antibiotic; and wine diluted with sugared water and chemicals.
Even eggs, seemingly sacrosanct in their shells, have turned out not to be eggs at all, but manmade concoctions of chemicals, gelatin and paraffin. Instructions can be purchased online, the Chinese media reported.
Scandals are proliferating, in part, because producers operate in a cutthroat environment in which illegal additives are everywhere and cost-effective. Manufacturers calculate correctly that the odds of profiting from unsafe practices far exceed the odds of getting caught, experts say. China’s explosive growth has spawned about half a million food producers, the authorities say, and four-fifths of them employ 10 or fewer workers, making oversight difficult.
China’s iron political controls ensure that no powerful consumer lobby exists to agitate for reform, file lawsuits against producers or lobby the government to pay as much attention to consumer safety as it does to controlling threats to its own power. Instead, like Alice after falling through the rabbit hole, consumers must guess what their food and drink contain.
Chinese consumers may have their hands tied compared with their Western counterparts, but they are increasingly middle class, well educated and dismayed by their lack of protection. Even top officials are discomfited.
“All of these nasty cases of food-safety problems are enough to show that lack of integrity and moral decline have become a very serious problem,” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) told government officials in the middle of last month, according to the People’s Daily.