Another week and another food safety scandal in China.
This one was about arsenic, but it had all the twists and turns of soap opera.
The debacle began in late November, when Nongfu Spring, a large Chinese beverage maker, received a warning from a municipal agency in Hainan. Officials claimed two of its popular fruit drinks contained health-threatening levels of the toxic chemical arsenic.
Zhong Shanshan, chairman of Nongfu Spring, quickly cried foul, complaining to the local media that the claim was authored by a rival food company.
“Saying our products contain excessive arsenic is purely a mistake,” Zhong told Xinhua. “I believe someone behind the scenes has bribed individuals in the administrative bureau, taken advantage of loopholes in the legal system and spread negative and incorrect information through the media.”
But when confronted by reporters, Wang Jianlu, deputy secretary of the municipal authorities, stood by the results: “Of course we followed all the rules and regulations in the testing process. Otherwise who could bear this responsibility?”
Suddenly faced with the prospect of recalls, Nongfu Spring sent additional samples to the National Food Quality Supervision and Inspection Centre and requested a retest.
The following day Nongfu Spring beverages passed the arsenic test.
Seemingly overnight, the Hainan authorities also stepped back from their original decision. Without additional explanation, the municipal bureau issued a statement admitting that products of Nongfu Spring had been cleared of earlier charges and notifying retailers that the products should not be recalled.
Consumers were at a loss. “I was totally confused about the contrary results released by the Haikou authorities,” housewife Chen Fang told the Shanghai Daily.
And Chen is not alone. Other consumers are asking why the government can’t seem to come up with an explanation for the contradictory results.
“We are not convinced because we are yet to be told what happened to the first test conducted by the local testing centre, and the core details of the incident have still not been made public,” thundered an editorial in the China Daily.
It is an open secret that quality testers take bribes from food companies in exchange for concealing negative test results from the press, complained CBN Weekly.
“Although the majority of the quality testing systems are standardised, some agencies still find ways to take money from food companies,” agreed an industry insider.
Analysts say threats of punishment for malfeasant officials have had limited effect. Cases such as the Nongfu one can also have a wider impact. “The scandal not only triggered distrust against the companies but also leads to questions on government credibility,” says Zhu Wenqing, a popular blogger.
In a survey conducted by major portal Sina.com, more than 88% of the 149,334 respondents said that the Hainan testing bureau should offer compensation and a public apology. A huge majority also wanted those responsible to be “severely punished or even dismissed”.
This won’t be much comfort to Nongfu. The majority of netizens also said they would not buy the products in question.
So chairman Zhong said his next task is to file a case against the provincial authorities. He claims the company had lost Rmb1 billion due to the scandal.
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.