Friday, 18 February 2011

Food Safety Scandals Hard to Swallow

After the tainted milk scandal broke out in the fall of 2008, I was living in Beijing at the time and promised to help a friend who had twin baby girls to get some milk powder for him in Hong Kong. I managed to lug back a case, though they probably went through that quite quickly.

I wasn't the only one buying milk powder and that certainly wasn't the last time either.

Now there is a big concern over having enough milk powder supply for residents in Hong Kong as mainlanders are coming across the border in droves to buy milk powder products here. They believe products in Hong Kong are trustworthy and will pay almost any price for it.

That has left many store shelves empty and local residents desperately going all over town looking for milk powder.

But that's not all mainlanders buy in Hong Kong -- they snap up cookies, cosmetics, shampoo -- almost everything we consider mundane. But to them things bought in Hong Kong are safe because they hardly trust anything made in their homeland anymore.

According to a survey by Insight China magazine and Tsinghua University's Media Survey Lab, almost 70 percent of mainland consumers seriously doubt food safety. Staples such as cooked meat, dairy products, fresh meat, canned food and cooking oil are among the top 10 food concerns where the level of distrust is unprecedented.

Last year the National Food Safety Regulating Work Office reported 130,000 food safety cases last year. Imagine how many went unreported.

The reason? Poor regulation, weak safety laws and a dysfunctional system that fails to prevent or seriously punish hazardous behaviour.

The chairwoman of a Beijing company that processes and sells cooked meats said it stems from the problem of feeding 1.3 billion people.

"What you're told in newspapers or as hearsay is not exaggerating at all," she said. "The government encourages big farms and they require you to meet market demand. The big farmers cannot afford to have sick pigs and it's convenient for them to feed pigs with antibiotics so that they don't get sick.''

"Meeting market demand is the big premise," she continued. "When meeting market demand is a problem, food safety cannot be a priority."

She added that a big concern for her was that slaughterhouses no longer removed sick pigs.

"Like people, pigs can fall ill with all kinds of diseases," she said. "But now, even the big state-owned slaughterhouses do not enforce that," she said. "It was not like that when I was young and it is very scary."

A chicken farmer named Zhou Jianping said it was common for farmers to mix hormones in the feed so that period to rear chickens was shorter, to less than 40 days.

And someone working in the fish industry told the Economic Observer that fish were fed with antibiotics and then soaked in formalin to preserve their freshness, which has become common practice.

There is not enough inspection, and standards aren't strictly enforced either. If companies fail an inspection, they come back with different packaging rather than actually improving on the product or the system.

"If there was a stricter policy, with a five-year or even a lifetime ban from entering the market, I think those owners would be more cautious and pay more attention to food quality," the Beijing woman said.

When it comes to legal prosecution, the criminal law only looks at those who produce and sell substandard food, not food processing, packaging, transport, storage and supervision of food.

"The real problem is that in China, whenever such a scandal comes out, the government regards it as a social incident that might affect the stability of its rule, but not as a legal matter," said rights lawyer Wang Zhenyu, who is also deputy director of the Research Institute of Public Policy under the China University of Political Science and Law.

The increase in food safety scandals also reveals the decline in social morals, said Wang. "There is no religion, no fear and no belief in karma," he said. "There are no public ethics at all."

Wang added inspectors have hardly any motivation to do their job well and seem to prefer to take bribes and kickbacks in order to financially get ahead -- as long as nothing serious happened under their watch.

So in the meantime what can people eat in China?

Apparently the rich have grouped together and hired people to grow organic vegetables and raise livestock for their own consumption.

What about the poor?

All they can do is arm themselves with as much knowledge as possible and try to eat things in season, or try to plant some vegetables.

Everyone has to eat, but how safe the food is, no one really knows. It's a scary way to go on a diet.

1 comment:

  1. ignorance and lack of control in food stuff will one day harm the people's health.