Talking Point

Sick of bad food

The Chinese government tries to get to grips with food safety breaches

Down the drain: previous food safety initiatives have not always proved successful

Reheating food, as many WiC readers will be aware, is not always an advisable culinary tactic; it can lead to the occasional bout of nausea.

China’s National People’s Congress will be hoping that its own work last week in rehashing the country’s food safety laws will achieve a healthier outcome. The new Food Safety Law is aimed at stemming the apparently unquenchable flow of food safety breaches.

How is China’s food safety track record?

Last year’s Sanlu milk scandal, in which 6 infants died and more than 300,000 others were reported as sick, is the best known of a litany of cases.

In Sanlu’s case, a melamine substitute used to bloat up protein levels in milk powder was found to have caused widespread kidney damage.

Former agriculture minister, Zhang Baowen has said melamine use in the industry was an open secret. But it is also only the most high profile case in a smorgasbord of recent scares. To mention just a selection in the last five years: 70 babies died of “big head disease” (a form of malnutrition) in Anhui province in 2004, again from faulty milk powder. In the same year, factories in Shangdong were caught selling noodles contaminated with lead, while five men died in Guangzhou drinking spirits that had been mixed with industrial grade alcohol. An investigative TV programme uncovered firms producing soya sauce with powder derived from human hair, and red dye used in a range of sauces and food colouring products was found to have various unhealthy effects. Food exports were hit too; infected dumplings reached Japan, thousands of American pets died from contaminated meat in 2007 and – far more seriously – hundreds of Panamanians died the year before, after ingesting toxic cough syrup allegedly sourced from the Yangzte Delta.

Bad luck or a systemic problem?

The Chinese press does not go quite as far to suggest systemic weakness, although its extensive coverage of the various problems of the last few years really makes the point without needing to say so directly.

In fact, governmental agencies have made a series of announcements and policy changes over recent years, as the realisation grew that the existing Food Hygiene Law (which dates back to 1995) needed overhaul.

The latest legislation went through four rounds of redesign within the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and will formally go into law on June 1 this year.

So what is new about the latest legislation?

More focus will be given to the centralised enforcement of clear standards and procedures in food quality and safety. A Beijing-based National Food Safety Commission will coordinate the work of the five ministries that retain day-to-day supervision over different phases of the food production process. Central government ministries are also required to develop a unified national programme for responding to food safety emergencies similar to the Sanlu case.

So this wasn’t happening before?

Implementation was sketchy, to say the least.

Take the red food dye (known as Sudan I) that was actually banned in 1996. Officials in the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, the State Bureau of Industry and Commerce, and the State Food and Drug Administration all discovered that Sudan I was still being used in food preparation in many major Chinese cities as late as 2005.

A review found that there were too many agencies overseeing food production, and they were not well enough equipped to detect the dye’s continued usage.

Steve Dickinson, a partner with Harris Moure (a law firm based in Seattle and Qingdao) reckons that the new law will struggle with similar challenges. Writing in the Wall Street Journal Asia, Dickinson worries that the law’s text provides little detail on standards, timelines, budgets and dispute resolution.

Chinese commentators are generally less pessimistic, although they do point to the scale of the task facing food regulators. Xinhua agrees, for example, that previous governmental policy has been hampered by bureaucratic infighting, or what Caijing refers to as “more than a dozen ‘big caps’ unable to cover a single basket of vegetables.”

The State Food and Drug Administration was previously tasked with coordinating activities across government, but was knocked off stride by the execution of its lead official Zheng Xiaoyu, for taking cash in exchange for the approval of untested medicines.

Better to litigate, rather than legislate?

Dickinson’s article has kicked off a wider debate on how best to beef up safety standards, including how victims should receive compensation in event of faulty food.

Some wonder if provisions under the new law that seem to propose civil compensation arrangements of up to 10 times the price of the offending item sold will prove sufficient. The Oriental Morning Post quotes the Deputy Secretary-General of China Consumers’ Association Wu Gaohan, who points out that, if a bag of dodgy milk powder is priced at only 10 yuan, “one loss for 10 penalties” means that only 100 yuan will be paid out in compensation.

For Dickinson compensation is at the heart of the matter. He says that it is only through allowing injured parties to take private legal action against negligent producers that the problem will be properly remedied.

A lawyer keen to encourage litigious activity will raise few eyebrows, although some respondents to Dickinson’s excellent China Law Blog are more energised by what they believe is a mistaken attempt to propose a western solution to a Chinese problem.

Others claim that this is all a red herring (although hopefully not one with traces of Sudan I extract), as victims are already able to pursue culprits through the courts.

But Dickinson is talking about legal action independent of government involvement. In the current Sanlu case, 95% of claimants have sought compensation through a government-led process. There is some concern that the tiny minority of privately brought cases against milk manufacturers are having more difficulties getting their own day in court.

A responsibility for more than just the government alone?

Other commentators say Chinese society at large needs to rethink attitudes to food preparation. The China News Service says local consumers are too accepting of poorly prepared food, even citing the traditional saying that “unclean food, won’t get you sick” as an unwitting contributor to lax standards.

News portal ifeng.com agrees that Chinese people pay too little attention to the science of food preparation. It urges consumers to consider whether their favourite roast duck or smelly tofu dish may have been prepared “…in the bathroom of some family or an abandoned public toilet”.

Keeping Track: As far back as WiC6 we cited concerns about food safety in China (“Sick of bad food”, Talking Point), and it would seem that the problem is not going away, as two revelations this week demonstrated. The first was in Liaoning province, where residents of the city of Chaoyang were shocked to discover what was being added to dried beans. A CCTV investigation found that local factories were mixing in a toxic chemical to make the beans look fresher. The chemical in question, copper sulphate, is a fungicide and is more commonly included in children’s chemistry sets. Its usage is illegal in food processing and eating the stuff can lead to stomach aches, or even the spitting of blood.


Meanwhile, in Guangdong province, worse news: farmers continue to feed their pigs the banned chemical additive Clenbuterol,so as to make the animals leaner and less fatty. The problem is that the additive is a health risk to humans, and can be fatal when it accumulates in the lungs. The China Daily reported that government officials were angered to discover that the additive is still widely used in the province. Why do farmers do it? “In some places, the price of pork is lower than that of vegetables. To keep costs low, farmers seek any means, even illegal means,” comments Li Lute, a professor at China Agricultural University. (28 August 2009)


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