China’s Food Fright

There’s no denying that the gastronomic horizons of Chinese cuisines sometimes verge on the infinite. But on factors of food quality, there’s little subtlety or nuance for safety standards.

In the past five years, the number of public food and drug safety scandals has hit new highs. In 2008, there was the tainted milk scandal. Then, this year’s poisoned medicine capsule case and contaminated cooking oil scandal signaled that there continue to be severe barriers to the adequate protection of public health.

With scandals now regularly uncovered in nearly every sector of food production, the industry as a whole appears to be under siege. Not long ago, a company in Foshan, Guangdong province, was exposed by local media outlets for adding cancer-causing salt to food products. Across the country, the practice of spraying cabbage with formaldehyde remains a top concern. On pig farms, the use of the toxic additive clenbuterol in feed has also raised alarms.

Caixin has found that these publicized food safety scandals represent only a fraction of unsafe food production practices. Hundreds of chemical food additives are pumped into products that Chinese people consume every day.

Lack of Moderation

In the three-plus decades since China began its reform and opening up campaign, regulatory standards have not kept up with ingenious food manufacturers.

In late May, the State Food and Drug Administration announced the results of inspections of nearly every pharmaceutical company nationwide. The report found 5.8 percent of all capsules on drugstore shelves contained excessive levels of chromium, a toxic heavy metal substance. According to the report, 254 companies replaced edible gelatin with industrial grade gelatin when producing drug capsules. The number of firms accounted for more than 12 percent of total drug producers in the country.

Zhu Yi, a food safety expert at the China Agricultural University, said the discovery has implications that cross over to other industries. While medical products are more carefully monitored, the food and cosmetics industries receive even less government scrutiny.

The central government continues to expend a huge amount of resources quelling the panic that follows media reports of food safety scandals. In April 2011, the Ministry of Health issued a list of forty-seven possible toxic additives in the food system. However, food safety experts say such lists issued by the government are far from complete, adding that razor-thin profit margins among food producers continue to drive the use of toxic chemicals.

It comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis—the cost of violating food safety regulations remains low compared to potential payoffs.

A recent Ministry of Health investigation found that it is not uncommon for legal edible additives to be used in excessive amounts in over twenty-two categories of food. The excessive intake of many of these additives has been proven to increase the risk of cancer and fertility problems.

Boosts from Biotechnology

Food safety experts say industrial advancements in production are also adding a new level of complexity to safety problems. Experts say manufacturers are exploiting technological improvements to pump out higher profits.

A recent example in the use of growth hormones was a product sold for bean sprout farming. The hormone catalyzer boosts cell growth for bean sprouts, resulting in 20-centimeter shoots. However, experts say the long-term consumption of such hormones can cause birth defects and raise the risk of cancer.

Dr. Li Yongjing, the China office president of DuPont Nutrition and Health, said chemically modified food requires more sophisticated a screening system not in use by regulators.

Multinational Maneuvers

China woke up to its food safety problems with the entrance of multinational companies. Fast-food giants McDonald’s and KFC were among the first violators caught by media in 2005, when “tony red,” a toxic chemical, was found in fried chicken.

Public awareness then hit fever pitch with the 2008 Sanlu milk powder scandal. Bringing down one of China’s largest dairy producers, the scandal opened the door to media scrutiny over major state-owned enterprises.

Experts argue state-owned companies were sucked into the scandal because of corner-cutting committed by small producers. Larger companies sourcing from small to mid-tier food producers are unable to test for unknown additives.

A China-Specific Problem

Struggles with food sanitation and contamination issues are not specific to one country, but the size and severity of the food safety crisis is unique to China.

Few experts are optimistic the crisis can be fixed without government support. Li, who is also vice chairman of the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology, said a mandatory food tracking program could allow regulators to trace the origins of contamination more efficiently. Li suggests implementing a pilot program with a major supermarket chain.

However, such a system could close off market participation for millions of farmers, small traders, and producers.

Many also believe the fundamental solution lies in the commitments of top-level policymakers. Until then, the jungle of China’s food industry will be guided by one standard through which those with the fewest scruples win.

Gong Jing and Cui Zheng are Caixin staff reporters. Wang Jingfeng is an intern reporter at Caixin.

Food Safety