A worker arranges slaughtered pigs at pork-processing factory in Wuhan. (Courtesy Reuters)
In July 2008, 16 children in the Chinese province of Gansu fell ill, suffering from low urine production. Their numbers multiplied, and by November hundreds of thousands of young Chinese throughout the country were experiencing varying degrees of kidney failure. Government inspections soon revealed that several prominent dairy companies and their suppliers were to blame. In an attempt to make it appear as if their products contained more protein, these companies had added melamine-formaldehyde resin, an inexpensive nitrogen-rich chemical used in plastic manufacturing, to baby formula and other types of milk.
At least ten children died. And according to researchers from Beijing University, although most children fully recovered, some 12 percent of those who ingested melamine-laced formula still showed kidney abnormalities two years later. A slew of criminal prosecutions followed the initial incident in 2008, primarily at the level of provincial People's Courts. Both dairy representatives and complicit government officials were punished for tampering with China's food supply. Two people were executed, another was given a suspended death penalty, three more received life in prison, and several others received long prison terms. After the World Health Organization announced that Chinese consumer confidence would be hard hit, government officials ordered the country's media outlets to tone down coverage of the scandal. Today, there is lingering speculation that Beijing suppressed reporting of the melamine incident, and the risk it posed to countless children, for fear of bad publicity during the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The crackdown on both dairy producers and the media was more than just another instance of China's iron fist. More than anything, an insatiable hunger for profits is pushing parts of the Chinese food industry to subjugate safety. Officials have long known that unsafe food poses a huge threat to public health, perhaps one that could imperil the country's rise. But ironically, government food-safety regulations are making the problem worse. There are too many regulatory agencies trying to enforce overlapping and conflicting regulations. For example, the Commerce Ministry supervises pork slaughterhouses, but beef and poultry slaughterhouses fall under the Agriculture Ministry. Various regions have differed over how to interpret acceptable levels of food additives, and at the provincial level many of the central government's edicts are simply ignored. It is probably only a minority of patients with food poisoning who seek formal medical care.
But the milk scandal was hardly the first, or last, Chinese food-safety scandal. In January, the "ping-pong eggs" scandal erupted. That month, consumers in Beijing discovered thousands of hard-boiled eggs that were impossible to eat and could literally be bounced off a flat surface. Inspectors later found that hens had been fed a compound called gossypol, which binds with protein in egg yolks. Gossypol has also been used as a key ingredient in tests to develop a male contraceptive pill, although in this case it was used to produce a large, healthy-looking egg yolk. Yet again, corporate greed was to blame for a food scandal.
Since the powdered milk outrage four years ago, companies have been caught making ham laced with pesticides, counterfeit alcoholic drinks, fake baby formula, contaminated vermicelli, adulterated pickled vegetables, carcinogenic chili sauce, and canned fish that contained a dangerous fungicide. Making matters worse, early last year, Mao Qunan, the director of the Chinese Health Ministry's Public Information Center, announced that certain journalists "with a neglectful and unserious attitude" would be blacklisted from reporting on food safety because their reports risked harming the development of China's food industry.
So far, China's food safety story has no happy ending. In the last 18 months, news outlets have published reports of glow-in-the-dark pork (thanks to the addition of the carcinogenic chemical clenbuterol), exploding watermelons (loaded with harmful growth accelerators), rice contaminated with heavy metals (the result of polluted soil), mushrooms imbued with bleach (to make them look fresher), and bread covered with starch (to hide mold). Perhaps the most disgusting of these incidents is the "recycling" of cooking oil from China's drains and gutters treated to look like edible oil. After being gathered in the night and filtrated, this "distilled sewage," noted China Daily, is sold in the morning as clear-looking oil to unwitting restaurant customers. Aflotoxin, a deadly toxin, is often added during the process.
Chinese authorities have not stood idle. Today, Beijing is probably more transparent in its inspection processes than ever before. When university researchers testing dairy products discovered excessive levels of flavacin, a substance that can cause liver cancer, late last year, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine promptly reported the results on its Web site. And last month, authorities in Shenzhen were quick to announce that they had recalled contaminated cooking oil products from three companies. The most important advance in China's food safety system may be the development of a national human surveillance system known as PulseNet, which is modeled after a program at the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal is to build a database to aggregate molecular subtyping of various bacterial strains to detect abnormal patterns and target emerging illnesses. For the most part, however, public discussion of the government's role in causing any food safety incidents is largely off limits.
In 2009, a year after the melamine-laced baby formula scandal, Chinese authorities passed a comprehensive food safety law that created the National Food Safety Commission, a powerful body based in Beijing that coordinates five ministries. But there is still a long way to go when it comes to implementing safeguards and enforcing rules. With insufficient funding, there are far fewer trained inspectors than is necessary, and the inspectors that do exist are far too passive in their strategy for testing products.
What is more, there is only so much the central government can do. Local government officials are responsible for supervising food safety within their administrative regions, but they face pressure to encourage business activity and bring in tax revenues. Many companies even invite local officials to become silent partners in their corporations in return for political protection.
But Chinese bureaucrats are not solely to blame; many of the country's food safety problems can be traced back to the farm. Farmers rely on chemicals to increase yields and ward off insects. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, China has one of the highest rates of chemical fertilizer use per hectare, and Chinese farmers use many highly toxic pesticides, including some that have been banned in the United States. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that only six percent of agricultural products in China could be considered safe. Many farmers use antibiotics to control disease in livestock, often at dangerously high levels.
The growing distance from the farm to the dinner table that has come with China's rapid urbanization also presents problems. Because the country lacks an integrated chain of refrigerated trucks, warehouses, and retail space, contamination has been on the rise. It does not help that China's food supply system is highly fragmented. The country has approximately 500,000 registered food production companies, of which 80 percent are small food workshops with fewer than ten employees. Then there are the 200 million farmers who ship directly to the market with little documentation. This is why it is so hard to trace the source of contaminated milk, for example; dairies get their raw milk from thousands of milk collection stations, which, in turn, source directly from farmers, each of whom on average owns fewer than three cows.
It would be tempting for those not living in China to think that the country's food scandals do not affect them. Yet China is one of the world's largest producers of agricultural products, and it exports roughly $5 billion worth of those products to the United States every year. Although supermarket labels may not indicate it, a growing proportion of the U.S. diet is now made in China. When Americans drink apple juice or eat tilapia, cod, or canned peaches, mushrooms, spinach, garlic, there is a good chance they are eating a Chinese product. And that food probably has not been tested: Only 1.5 percent of Chinese food imports, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are inspected.
If China is to become the great nation its government claims it will, it will have to do more to accept the responsibility for making its food safe. This effort includes both the battle against criminal adulteration, as well as illnesses caused by a handful of infectious agents -- viral, parasitic, and bacterial. Much of the world is watching, and with more than casual interest. Repeated food safety problems raise doubts about whether the government can create a transparent, accountable food safety policy. And the suppression of news about food safety scandals suggests that the government is more concerned about maintaining control of its people than it is about protecting their health.