No End in Sight for China’s Food Safety Scandals

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One of the most disheartening things about food safety problems in China, aside from the harm they do to human health, is the regularity with which they occur. That thought came to mind as news of the latest tainted food scandal emerged this week. Nearly 300 villagers in Hunan were hospitalized over the weekend after eating pork at a wedding, the state-run China Daily reported. The meat was believed to have been contaminated with clenbuterol, a drug that farmers use to trim fat from pigs but can cause induce headaches and nausea when the meat is consumed. My colleague Jessie Jiang wrote about a case last month in which China’s largest meat producer was found to have sold pork tainted with the substance, which is known informally in Chinese as “lean meat powder”:

Chen Junshi, a professor specializing in nutrition and food safety at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that the clenbuterol-tainted pork from Henan might well be the tip of the iceberg. “Given the sheer number of pig farmers located all over the country, each one of them operating on a relatively small scale, I think the use of clenbuterol is virtually inevitable,” Chen said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if an individual pig farmer, lured by short-term profits, would still take the risk. “The same also holds true for many other food safety crises as well.”

Chen’s tip-of-the-iceberg prediction has sadly proven correct. It was probably an easy call to make. The circularity of food safety scandals here means that the announcement of one contaminant generally means that many more cases of the same substance being used will emerge in the coming weeks and months. That was the case in 2008, when the emergence of melamine in baby formula, which killed six infants, led to inspections that found a quarter of the country’s dairies had traces of the substance in their products. That led much tough talk and eventually a new food safety law in 2009. But problems clearly remain. In addition to the recent clenbuterol cases, some businesses have been caught using additives to change pork into something that could pass for beef, thus selling for a higher price. (The chinaSMACK blog has a stomach-turning photo essay of the process.)

We are now in the crackdown stage of China’s food-safety cycle, when the government tightens regulations and calls for widespread inspections. As the state-run Xinhua service put it today, “China vows greater efforts to safeguard food safety.” That shouldn’t be confused with the Xinhua story from February: “China vows to enhance investigation of food safety incidents,” or the story from last year: “China vows new food safety campaign,” or the story from 2008: “China vows to ensure product quality, food safety.” And those are just the stories with “vows” in the headline. To be fair, it is unrealistic to expect that such a widespread problem could be solved in a single crackdown. But Chinese consumers can be forgiven for wondering when a vow to ensure food safety will actually be upheld.