Wed, Jun 02, 2004 - Page 5 News List

China awash in fake, dangerous foods and drugs


Tofu made from paint. Phony rabies vaccine that's nothing but salty water. Bogus whiskey packing a toxic wood-alcohol punch.

China's thriving product pirates are best-known for fake DVDs and designer shirts. But they do their worst damage peddling phony medicines and foods that are widely sold, and can be deadly.

Even Chinese officials say they fear for their safety following a spate of deaths and gruesome revelations.

"It's hard to know what you can eat anymore. I have the exact same kind of food safety fears as ordinary citizens," Zheng Xiaoyun, director of the National Food and Medicine Inspection Bureau, said on state television last week.

China's leaders were jolted into action last month following the deaths of 12 babies who were fed fake infant formula made of sugar and starch with few nutrients. Scores of malnourished infants who survived were hospitalized with swollen heads and wasted bodies.

Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a nationwide investigation. Authorities reported 137 arrests -- including two officials accused of covering up the sales and faking an earlier investigation. More than 100,000 bags of fake formula sold under dozens of brand names were seized.

Yet new reports of "big-head babies" with permanent developmental damage blamed on phony formula keep cropping up throughout China, and fake formula is reportedly still on sale in many places.

"Making and selling unsafe food is so lucrative and so rampant that we don't have the means to control it," said Cai Shouqiu, head of the Chinese Academy of Environmental Law. "Everyone just wants to make money."

Victims are often China's poorest, least educated people, who know little other than that the products are cheap.

But cities aren't safe, either.

Supermarkets in Shanghai recently pulled pickled vegetables from their shelves after reports that they were made using toxic industrial salts and pesticides such as DDT. Last week, vitamin capsules labeled as codfish oil were pulled after they were found to be phony, though apparently not harmful.

In Guangzhou, one of China's most cosmopolitan areas, at least 11 people died this month after drinking liquor made with methanol, a toxic wood alcohol. The government says it has arrested six suppliers and is looking for 17 other people.

John Huang, a Shanghai office worker, displayed the growing cynicism as he emerged from a suburban train station into a crowd of shouting farmers hawking lychees, kebabs and tofu cakes.

"I don't dare buy from them. All they sell is phony stuff," Huang said.

Still, he showed no aversion to other counterfeits, turning a second later to flip through a rack of pirated DVDs.

No official statistics on the human cost of fake products are available.

But in southwestern Yunnan Province alone, 17 deaths from tainted food have been reported so far this year.

A recent survey of 2,415 people in seven Chinese cities found that just 45 percent of those who responded have confidence in the safety of their food. The rest ranged from highly skeptical to only marginally confident, according to the survey published Wednesday in the Shanghai Daily.

Such sentiments haven't been helped by media reports showing officials to be unconcerned about or even colluding with the cheats.

In one case, medical inspectors were believed to be working with distributors who sold rabies vaccine made of only salted water to country clinics, according to a police official speaking on state television.

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