Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Food & Agriculture, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

Eat Chinese, But Eat Safe

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Mar 7 2011 (IPS) - Despite a greater government effort to monitor food safety in the wake of high profile contamination incidents – including the 2008 melamine milk poisoning scandal that killed six infants and made 300,000 ill – the majority of Chinese still feel insecure about the food they eat.

“I’m not optimistic about the overall state of food safety in China,” says Zheng Fengtian, professor at Renmin University, before listing off recent food scares, including contaminated cowpeas from Hainan Island, poisonous crayfish in Nanjing and the liberal use of recycled cooking oil throughout the country. “All of these make it impossible for Chinese people to expect more from food producers and the government.”

China has faced a number of food scandals in recent years. In 2004, 13 babies died of malnutrition in Fujian province after being fed a formula that contained little or no nutritional value. In 2008, the melamine milk scandal made international headlines and prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to establish three offices in China. (Melamine is a chemical used in making plastics and when added to milk can make its protein content appear higher.)

Toxic food produced in China killed more than 100 people in Panama in 2006 and thousands of pets died in North America in 2007 after consuming adulterated wheat gluten from China.

Responding to the food safety crises, the government has revised food safety regulations – passing a Food Safety Law in 2009 – and cracked down on violators, according to China Daily, a state-owned English newspaper.

China has shown that it is willing to take extreme measures to punish violators. In 2009, a Chinese court sentenced two people to death in the melamine milk scandal and, two years earlier, the country executed Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of the Sate Food and Drug Administration, for accepting bribes from drug companies.

The government has announced the setting up of food safety monitoring centres in 31 provinces across China, according to China Daily. The national food safety work office under the State Council said food safety tests on agricultural products had been expanded to 128 medium and large-sized cities, the newspaper reported.

Despite these efforts, fake or toxic batches of wine, mushrooms, bean curd, rice noodles, dairy drinks and cooking oil have been reported in China in recent months. In November, another melamine scare occurred when contaminated dairy products were discovered in Hunan province.

China faced an unusually high number of food poisoning incidents in the first half of last year, prompting the Ministry of Health to issue a warning on food poisoning in July, the first time since the Food Safety Law was passed. From January to May 2010, there were 2,452 reported cases of food poisoning and 56 deaths, according to Xinhua News Agency.

In July, Chen Rui, deputy director-general of the Bureau of Food Safety Coordination and Health Supervision of the Ministry of Health, said the central government is planning to introduce a new batch of food safety standards, and will establish national standards for food safety.

A small but growing number of farmers is taking the rare measure of starting or joining organic farmers that abide by the community-supported agriculture model (CSA) model that is used in the United States. China has about 40 CSA farms and a recent CSA conference in Beijing attracted more than 250 people, according to media reports.

Feng Yujun, a researcher at the China Law Society’s Food Safety Legislation Research Centre, lauds the government’s efforts to tackle the food safety issue, but says problems remain – namely low-quality raw materials used in the production process and the overuse of food additives and chemicals.

Feng says China needs to strengthen punishments and simplify food safety management and supervision.

“There are over ten departments involved in management and supervision and no unifying food safety standards,” Feng tells IPS. “The central government needs to establish a powerful unified management mechanism.”

Nearly 70 percent of all Chinese do not believe the food they consume is safe, according to this year’s Consumer Food Security Confidence Report published by the Tsinghua University Media Survey Lab and China Insight Magazine, a state-owned publication.

Over 50 percent of those surveyed said food safety should be strengthened; 53 percent expressed concern over the quality of food in China; and 15.6 percent said they don’t trust the nation’s food safety at all. Over 60 percent of respondents said they do not trust genetically modified foods.

“Food producers have no morals”, was the top reason given for not trusting assertions of food quality. Despite increasingly strict supervision of food by the government, many respondents said China’s food producers were still subject to “inefficient government controls.” Only 20.5 percent of those surveyed thought the government put enough effort into food supervision, while 42.5 percent believed it made little or no effort at all.

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