China’s Food Cops and “The Wire”

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Last night I was catching up on some old episodes of “The Wire,” the fabulous HBO drama about a sprawling drug investigation in New York Baltimore. One reminded me so much of the latest news on food safety in China that it seemed worth pointing out. Yesterday the official China Daily ran a story about an investigation that led to the closure of at least 180 mostly small-scale food production centers. “Industrial raw materials, such as dyes, mineral oils, paraffin wax, formaldehyde and the carcinogenic malachite green, have been used in the production of flour, candy, pickles, biscuits, black fungus, melon seeds, bean curd and seafood,” the story said.

Closing these filth factories is a good thing, of course. But as “The Wire” teaches, crackdowns aren’t always as useful as they seem. In a first-season episode titled “The Hunt,” the show’s street-level cop protagonists are, in response to the shooting of one of their comrades, forced by a top boss to go out and bust every drug house they can find. “We want dope on the table for the six o’clock news,” is the line from up top. The heroes resist because what is good for the six o’clock news isn’t always good for policing.

China’s big crackdown on bad food production grabbed widespread coverage, and there’s plenty reason to hope that the authorities are getting serious. But if this display shows anything, it’s just how lax they’ve been up to now. As one official said at the press conference, “These are not isolated cases.”

Take malachite green for instance. Beijing banned the use of the potentially cancer-causing chemical in aquaculture in 2002, but farmers continued to use it because of its effectiveness at reducing fungal and bacterial infections in fish. In 2005 after it was discovered in fish and eel raised in Guangdong, Hong Kong tested its local supply, which mostly comes from the mainland. They found seven out of every eight eels and one out of every five freshwater fish sampled were contaminated with malachite green. Hong Kong banned the chemical and now tests for it. But malachite keeps showing up, in mud carp in February, turbot in March, grouper in April.

The head of Hong Kong’s Food Safety Centre says those positive tests show the territory’s food safety system works. But they also show that there are serious problems in the mainland enforcing existing food safety rules. Crackdowns on malachite green were promised in 2005 and again in 2006. But last week the Ministry of Agriculture announced that in tests in several Chinese cities, nearly one out of eight aquaculture products contained malachite green. Another crackdown is welcome, but it’s steady, quiet enforcement of laws on the books is what’s really needed to make sure people in China aren’t being poisoned by their food.