It puts the recent British scandal over horsemeat into perspective. In February, Chinese police in the eastern province of Jiangsu uncovered a criminal gang collecting fox, mink and even rat flesh and then passing it off as lamb.
The trick to passing the counterfeit meat off as lamb is to soak it in gelatin, red pigment and nitrates. The gang had earned over Rmb10 million ($1.62 million) selling the fake meat in Jiangsu and nearby Shanghai, a statement on the Public Security Bureau’s website revealed.
“Jiangsu authorities deployed more than 200 police in its unified action… arrested 63 suspects, destroyed more than 50 ‘black dens’ and seized more than 10 tonnes of counterfeiting raw materials and semi-finished products,” the statement said.
But the horror did not end there. The statement went on say that the bureau had cracked 382 other “meat related crimes” since it launched “operations to defend the safety of the table” before the Lunar New Year.
Up river from Shanghai in Suzhou six suspects were arrested for collecting and selling the carcasses of diseased pigs. In March, thousands of dead pigs were found floating in the Huangpu river that connects the two cities (see WiC188).
And last month in Shenyang, a couple were arrested for reintroducing 20,000 diseased chickens back into the human food chain (see WiC189 for a separate story on the recent bird flu outbreak).
The bureau statement was clearly designed to provide reassurance on food safety, one of the most cited reasons for Chinese emigration.
But for many it had exactly the opposite effect. “First pork, then chicken, now lamb. What exactly can we eat?” asked one user on the popular micro-blogging service Sina Weibo.
“Don’t ask the question what the Chinese dream is again. The simple dream is that we can eat real mutton and not fox or rat,” wrote another, referencing Chinese president Xi Jinping’s new slogan (see page 7).
They may have a point.
Past Chinese leaders have all vowed – just as current premier Li Keqiang has done – to clean up the under-regulated food industry. But the size and complexity of the challenge has defeated them all.
“The imperfect legal system, the shortage of monitors – as well as under-training and the lack of a sense of duty – are all reasons for this happening. But more specifically our system does not encourage people to blow the whistle on such ‘trade secrets’,” a commentary in Shaanxi province’s Hua Shang newspaper complained.
It’s not just food that people worry about, but what it comes in too. The production and sale of styrofoam containers for takeaway food has recently been allowed again. Experts say that legalising the containers – they were banned in 1999 – opens the door to potentially hazardous recycled plastics being used to make them, releasing toxins when exposed to heat.
“The best thing is just to eat grass like cows,” suggested another weibo wag. But for those still ready to try their luck with meat, police in eastern Zhejiang province posted a series of pictures to illustrate the difference between real and fake lamb. Frighteningly, it is tough to tell the difference, especially because most of the fake lamb seems to have been sold pre-sliced for hotpot meals.
“The best way to tell whether the mutton is fake is to thaw out the slices. After they’ve been thawed, fake mutton immediately reverts back to its original shape,” it said.
“Put the fake mutton into the hot pot to boil for a bit and take a look. After hitting the boiling water, the fake kind begins to fall apart, and the colour became unnatural. For real mutton, the meat tightens up.”
But that still didn’t answer all the netizen questions. “Is it really cheaper to eat mink than sheep. Wouldn’t it be more profitable to make them into coats?” asked one.
Others quipped that people should feel lucky to have such a smorgasbord of culinary options.
“In the future I can show off and say that I have eaten rat, fox and mink,” said one sarcastically. “Another happy day!”
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