Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chinese food: Is it safe to eat?

“Safe to Eat” was the front page headline of today’s local paper. It was referring to the scare about tainted foodstuffs from China that has had shoppers around the world worried since China recently executed the former head of its Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, for accepting nearly US$1 million in bribes from manufacturers.

The first paragraph of the story read: “Have no fear, says the Health Ministry, foodstuffs from China that can be found on the shelves of supermarkets is safe for consumption.”

But how can they be so sure? The food scandals have been surfacing in China for the past three years, and nobody really knows how long the breaches of health safety regulations were going on before that.

It all started in 2004 when it was discovered that noodles being produced in Yantai in Shandong province were contaminated with lead. To cut costs, the manufacturer had decided to use corn starch instead of mung beans to make the noodles, and to make them transparent like the mung bean noodles, they had treated them with a lead-based whitener. And in the same year there was the scandal about the fake baby formula that caused the death of 13 babies - and for those that didn’t die, their heads grew bigger but their bodies became smaller.

Then in 2005 several multinational food manufacturers with factories in China were found to be adding a petrol additive as a red dye in chili sauce and some canned vegetables. And in 2006 there was the scandal about the adding of a similar additive to duck feed by poultry farmers in Hebie province to produce eggs with a deeper orange yolk – as well as the carcinogenic turbot fish scare.

This year we’ve seen the recall of Chinese-made toothpaste in several countries around the world because it contained the anti-freeze agent diethylene glycol (a cheaper substitute for glycerine), and in Panama the same additive in cough mixture caused over 100 deaths. That was followed by the recall of Chinese-made pet food in Canada because the manufacturer had added melamine to wheat gluten to increase its apparent protein content. That caused some pets to die of kidney failure.

And just a few months ago, both Japan and the US discovered that fresh ginger imported from China had been treated with the dangerous pesticide aldicarb sulphoxide.

Yes, the Chinese authorities are now clamping down on those manufacturers who are found to be breaching the regulations, but as a friend in the Chinese government told me recently: “There’s no way we can control what is going on in every factory across China. There’s just too much corruption at the local level, and the temptation to use cheaper ingredients to reduce costs and maximise profits is too great.”

Last year, food inspectors found problems in more than 350,000 factories across China, and shut down half of them. But are the authorities taking the problem seriously enough? The Vice-Minister of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, Li Dongsheng, was quoted in one of the Chinese dailies as saying: "Yes, we have some problems with the food safety of Chinese products. However, they are not that serious."

If there are any more scandals it will be difficult for the Chinese government to restore consumer confidence in Chinese-made foodstuffs. Confidence is already at an all-time low. Just last week I was in a supermarket in Bangsar, and I overheard a woman next to me tell her daughter (who had just picked up a can of something from the shelf): “Put that back, darling. It’s made in China. It might be contaminated.”

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