Dumplings are a popular meal in China, but they have rarely offered food for thought in terms of the wider public debate.
That has changed, with frozen dumplings moving from the menu to the policy agenda recently, after several major dumpling brands were reported to contain traces of bacteria linked to diseases including pneumonia and sepsis.
Food scandals are nothing new in China, despite new food quality laws and tougher punishments for violators. Authorities this year have arrested more than 1,000 people in the ongoing struggle against clenbuterol-tainted pork, for instance, and there has also been a crackdown on the use of “gutter oil” (cooking oil scooped out of drains and reused; see WiC123).
More spectacularly still, watermelons in eastern China were reported to be exploding in the fields, after they were injected with growth stimulants.
But the dumpling debacle dates back to October, when a Henan-based company called Synear – one of the country’s largest frozen food producers – confirmed the presence of staphylococcus aureus bacterium (also called golden staph) in its flash-frozen seafood and pork-stuffed dumplings.
Products from the Hong Kong-based company Wanchai Ferry were also found to contain golden staph in November, and were pulled off the shelves.
But instead of a full recall, the Health Ministry then announced new rules in late November that permit a small amount of golden staph in frozen rice or dough products.
Officials then explained at a press conference that the bacteria in question is rendered inactive after frozen food is cooked.
So as long as dumplings are cooked thoroughly, they shouldn’t have adverse health effects. Food experts concurred, saying former safety guidelines were outdated as they were introduced before more detailed testing for bacterial infections was available.
But many ordinary Chinese were less convinced, saying that they were uncertain about how long to cook their food before it could be considered safe.
Another complaint was that boiling dumplings for longer periods would also see them fall apart in the pan.
Others accused the food regulators of caring less about the public’s health than lowering food safety standards to protect big business.
“So according to the new standards, toxin is allowed in foods as long as the amount is not of a lethal level,” one netizen complained on Sina Weibo.
China’s state-run media was also critical of the announcement, with a commentary in the People’s Daily urging authorities to recognise wider concern about the revisions to the rules, and warning that they should not try to “fudge public concerns”.
But the public’s anxiety also offers commercial opportunities. The US biotech company Life Technologies announced in late November that it will be promoting a series of its products in China, including technology that can test for pathogens in contaminated food, says 21CN Business Herald.
Another US firm, Preferred Freezer Services, has also been publicising a joint venture with Chinese property developer Yida Group to open its first cold storage facility in Shanghai, with a capacity of 40,000 tonnes.
The move follows wider coverage of cold-chain distribution in China, which is said to be increasingly inadequate for the domestic food industry.
Existing cold storage volume can meet no more than 30% of market demand, resulting in $9.25 billion of losses during product transportation, warned the Economic Daily.
But Liu Xianfeng, a cold storage manager of McCain Foods, a major supplier for KFC and McDonald’s in China, then told newspapers that although a lot of investment was going into cold storage, only a few facilities could achieve strict temperature controls.
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