This month’s discovery of artery-clogging trans fats in infant milk formula is just the latest in a long line of food scares to hit China. It’s no wonder that the faith placed by Chinese citizens in local food waning rapidly. In 2008, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found that 12 percent of respondents were concerned about food safety. By 2012, that number had shot up to 41 percent. Premier Li Keqiang has responded to fears by pledging to step up food safety supervision and introduce harsher penalties for those manufacturing substandard foodstuffs. Perpetrators “must pay such a high price” that they cannot afford to ignore regulations, Li says. In the meantime, here’s a chronological recap of why Chinese consumers are worried about what to put on the dinner table.
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1. September 2008: Melamine-laced milk
Dairy company Sanlu Group’s contaminated milk powder kills at least six babies and causes another 300,000 to fall ill with kidney stones. The formula is contaminated with melamine, a chemical normally used in plastics. The ensuing scandal makes headlines around the world and continues to have reverberations to this day, with Chinese tourists still buying up stocks of infant milk formula overseas to bring home. Two men, Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping, are sentenced to death for their roles in the affair. Geng says he added melamine to dairy milk to make it appear richer in protein, after milk from his farm was rejected several times by Sanlu Group for failing to meet quality standards.
2. March 2011: Pork tainted with clenbuterol
Pork contaminated with the fat-burning additive clenbuterol is found in central Henan province. One person is given a suspended death sentence for giving the drug to pigs in order to make their meat leaner and therefore more expensive. The drug causes nausea and dizziness in humans and may not be fed to animals.
3. May 2012: Exploding watermelons
In Jiangsu province, watermelons explode on a massive scale during harvest season. Experts chalk up the bizarre phenomenon to the use of forchlorfenuron, a chemical growth promoter made more potent by sudden rainfall after a dry season. One farmer, Liu Mingsuo, tells Xinhua: “This is the first year that I have planted watermelons. I sprayed forchlorfenuron and calcium on May 6. The next day, about 180 watermelons burst”. Use of forchlorfenuron, within prescribed limits, is legal in China.
4. May 2012: Rat meat passed off as mutton
Nine cooked-food stores in Shanghai are closed down after they are caught selling counterfeit mutton. Authorities trace the meat to a criminal ring in Jiangsu province passing off fox, mink and rat as mutton and selling it to wholesale markets. Sixty-three people are arrested on suspicion of selling more than $1.6 million worth of fake mutton. The Ministry of Public Service says the suspects passed off the other meats as mutton by adding gelatine, carmine, nitrates and other substances.
5. November 2012: Fake eggs
Fake eggs are found on sale in central China’s Henan province, Guangming Daily reports. One woman who bought them because they were much cheaper than those on offer in her local supermarket says that when she tried one, “It tasted like rubber, it wouldn’t break down no matter how hard I chewed.” That would be because the shell was made from a mixture of paraffin wax, gypsum powder and calcium carbonate, the egg-white made from sodium algninate and the yolk from a mix of resin and pigment.
6. November 2012: Liquor containing plasticizer
Jiugui Liquor, a distillery in Hunan province, is found to be selling products containing excessive levels of dibutyl phthalate, a chemical used to make flexible plastics that can cause damage to reproductive organs and digestive and immune systems if ingested. Liu Xuejun, a food science professor at Jilin Agricultural University, tells state-run Xinhua news agency the plasticizer may have come from the PVC tubes or vessels used for storage, or from flavoring essences used in the liquor.
7. April 2013: Gutter oil
Twenty people involved in three separate cases are sentenced to jail for manufacturing and selling gutter oil — filthy oil scavenged from restaurant drains and containing dangerous toxins. China Daily reports that Liu Liguo, the ringleader of one group from northern Shandong province, is given a life sentence for selling a staggering $16.2 million worth of gutter oil to food makers, pharmaceutical companies and feed producers between 2007 and 2011.
8. April 2013: Fake honey
Police in Sichuan province uncover a facility manufacturing fake honey from water, sugar, alum powder and coloring, after being alerted by the strong smell of alum. When ingested, alum powder has the potential to cause irregular heartbeat, vomiting, breathlessness and even seizures. Five suspects are arrested after raids on four fake honey production sites. The police also confiscate 1,000 kilograms of counterfeit honey contained in 38 barrels.
9. May 2013: Cadmium-contaminated rice
Rice produced in three mills in central China’s Hunan province is found to be tainted with cadmium — a carcinogenic industrial chemical. Hunan’s metal industry is the culprit, contaminating water supplies used to irrigate farmland. The cadmium-laced rice is found on sale in Guangzhou, China’s booming southern metropolis. Nearly 45 percent of all rice and rice products in the city are contaminated with cadmium, tests show.
10. July 2013: Trans fat in baby milk formula
A laboratory test commissioned by Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post finds that three popular Chinese baby milk powder brands contain between 0.4 to 0.6 grams of trans-fat per 100 grams of formula. The brands are Beingmate’s Baby Club, Synutra’s Super infant formula and Yili’s Gold infant formula. Trans fat increases the risk of coronary heart disease and no more than 0.5 grams should be consumed per serving of food, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, the substance, often found in fast food or snack foods, has such serious health risks that it is completely banned or highly regulated in many jurisdictions.