“SHANGHAI — On a bustling corner near downtown Shanghai recently, some shoppers avoided the steamed buns sold by Zhu Qinghe in a street-side cubbyhole. Instead, they bought the packaged buns in the freezer section of Hualian, a supermarket chain store in the same building.
Big mistake: Mr. Zhu’s buns were soft, tasty and fresh, made every day, he said, at 3 a.m. The supermarket’s, on the other hand, came from a filthy workshop where workers “recycled” buns after their sell-by date. The workers merely threw the stale buns into a vat, added water and flour, and repackaged them to be sold anew.
It has been two years since China’s government, reeling from nationwide outrage over melamine-contaminated baby milk that sickened 300,000 infants and killed at least 6, declared food safety a national priority. Since then, it has threatened, raided and arrested throngs of shady food processors — and even executed a couple.
But a stomach-turning string of food-safety scandals this spring, from recycled buns to contaminated pork, makes it clear that official efforts are falling short. Despite efforts to create a modern food-safety regimen, oversight remains utterly haphazard, in the hands of ill-trained, ill-equipped and outnumbered enforcers whose quick fixes are even more quickly undone.
“Most of them are working like headless chickens, having no clue what are the major food-borne diseases that need to be addressed or what are the major contaminants in the food process,” said Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety expert with the World Health Organization’s Beijing office.
In recent weeks, China’s news media have reported sales of pork adulterated with the drug clenbuterol, which can cause heart palpitations; pork sold as beef after it was soaked in borax, a detergent additive; rice contaminated with cadmium, a heavy metal discharged by smelters; arsenic-laced soy sauce; popcorn and mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach; bean sprouts tainted with an animal antibiotic; and wine diluted with sugared water and chemicals.
Even eggs, seemingly sacrosanct in their shells, have turned out not to be eggs at all but man-made concoctions of chemicals, gelatin and paraffin. Instructions can be purchased online, the Chinese media reported.
Scandals are proliferating, in part, because producers operate in a cutthroat environment in which illegal additives are everywhere and cost-effective. Manufacturers calculate correctly that the odds of profiting from unsafe practices far exceed the odds of getting caught, experts say. China’s explosive growth has spawned nearly half a million food producers, the authorities say, and four-fifths of them employ 10 or fewer workers, making oversight difficult.
China’s iron political controls ensure that no powerful consumer lobby exists to agitate for reform, press lawsuits that punish wayward producers or lobby the government to pay as much attention to consumer safety as it does to controlling threats to its own power. Instead, like Alice after falling through the rabbit hole, consumers must guess what their food and drink contain.
“Basically, people now feel nothing is safe to eat,” said Sang Liwei, who directs the Beijing office of the Global Food Safety Forum, a private agency. “They don’t know what choices to make. They are really feeling very helpless.”
Chinese consumers may have their hands tied compared with their Western counterparts, but they are increasingly middle-class, well-educated and dismayed by their lack of protection. Even top officials are discomfited.
“All of these nasty cases of food-safety problems are enough to show that lack of integrity and moral decline have become a very serious problem,” Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told government officials in mid-April, according to The People’s Daily.
“We feel really ashamed,” Vice Premier Wang Qishan said at a meeting in March with legislators, according to Xinhua, the official news agency. “Just when the people have enough to feed themselves, we have this food-safety problem. Really embarrassing, this is really embarrassing for us.”
Some progress is evident. China adopted a far-reaching food-safety law in 2009 and is bringing hundreds of standards in line with international norms. Already, nearly half of dairy food companies have been ordered to halt production after failing to meet new licensing requirements.
“The situation is steadily improving, “ said Luo Yunbo, the dean of the food sciences college at China Agricultural University in Beijing. “It is not as bad as people think it is.”…”
Related: The Associated Press reports problems with exploding watermelons in China due to misuse of chemicals. Photo at top is from this story.