China wrestles with food safety problems

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COLUMN ONE

China wrestles with food safety problems

From steroid-spiked pork to glow-in-the-dark meat to recycled cooking oil
collected from sewers, a series of illnesses and scandals linked to tainted food
has put officials on guard. But tougher measures have had little effect amid an
official culture of secrecy.

By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

5:35 PM PDT, June 26, 2011

Reporting from Beijing

It was a wedding the guests would never forget. Everybody of consequence in
the village had been invited to a banquet to celebrate the marriage of the son
of one of the wealthiest families. Fifty tables groaned under a lavish spread of
dumplings, steamed chickens, pork ribs, meatballs, stir fries, all of it
exceptionally delicious, guests would later recall.

But about an hour
into the meal, something seemed to be wrong. A pregnant woman collapsed. Old men
clutched their chests. Children vomited.

Out of about 500 people at the
April 23 banquet in Wufeng, 286 went to the hospital. Doctors at the No. 3
Xiangya Hospital in nearby Changsha, capital of Hunan province, blamed pork
contaminated with clenbuterol, a steroid that makes pigs grow faster and leaner.
Consumed by humans in excess quantity, it can cause heart palpitations, nausea,
convulsions, dizziness and vomiting.

“It was as though he was poisoned,"
said a villager named Dai, whose husband was hospitalized for five
days.

To eat, drink and be merry in China is done at a risk: Weddings
increasingly end with trips to the emergency room. During the May Day holiday
weekend, 192 people from two weddings elsewhere in Hunan fell so ill they had to
be hospitalized.

Since 2008, when six children died and 300,000 were
sickened by melamine-tainted baby
formula
, the Chinese government has enacted ever-more-strict policies to
ensure food safety, including a directive last month from the Supreme Court
calling for the death penalty in cases where people die as a result of tainted
foods.

It hasn’t helped. If anything, China’s food scandals are becoming
increasingly frequent and bizarre.

In May, a Shanghai woman who had left
uncooked pork on her kitchen table woke up in the middle of the night and
noticed that the meat was emitting a blue light, like something out of a science
fiction movie. Experts pointed to phosphorescent bacteria, blamed for another
case of glow-in-the-dark pork last year.

Farmers in eastern Jiangsu
province complained to state media last month that their watermelons had
exploded “like landmines" after they mistakenly applied too much growth hormone
in hopes of increasing their size.

Such incidents cut to the quick of the
weaknesses in China’s monolithic one-party system. Chinese authorities are
painfully aware that people will lose confidence in a government that cannot
give them assurances about what they eat. They are equally aware that tainted
foods could cause what communist authorities fear most: social
unrest.

“Food safety concerns the people’s interests and livelihoods,
social stability and the future of socialism with Chinese characteristics," is
how the Supreme Court put it in its notice last month accompanying the
announcement of the death penalty.

The government’s efforts are looking
frantic.

Propaganda posters put up in recent weeks in Beijing restaurants
show a clenched fist about to smash into a man in a chef’s toque with the
message, “Crack down on illegal additives!"

The mass poisoning at the
April 23 wedding in Wufeng village prompted provincial authorities to decree
that samples of ingredients must be inspected in advance for banquets with more
than 100 people.

It’s doubtful, however, that anybody will heed the
regulation — China is famous for promulgating laws that are never enforced.
There is no equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: A myriad of
different agencies reporting to various ministries, including the Agriculture
Ministry and Health Ministry, tend to kick responsibility from one to another.
Offenders are not usually prosecuted until something goes badly wrong, as in the
baby formula case, in which two people were executed.

The incentive to
cheat is greater than ever before, with inflation at its highest level in nearly
three years. Food prices in May were up 11.7% from last year, and flooding this
month is expected to push them even higher.

“On the one hand, ordinary
people pay more attention to food safety and nutrition, but on the other hand,
whenever you see a big crowd at the market it is because something is on sale,"
said Luo Yunbo, dean of the food sciences college at China Agricultural
University in Beijing.

Bigger, cheaper, faster is the name of the
game.

To make some breeds of fish mature more quickly, aquatic farmers
feed them ground-up birth-control pills, which cost virtually nothing because of
China’s strict limits on family size. In April, authorities in Hefei province
busted businesses that were selling a glaze that makes pork look and smell like
more expensive beef — bad news in a country with more than 20 million
Muslims.

Until recently, directions were circulating on the Internet
about how to make fake eggs out of a gelatinous compound comprised mostly of
sodium alginate, which is then poured into a shell made out of calcium
carbonate. Companies marketing the kits promised that you could make a fake egg
for one-quarter the price of a real one.

Shanghainese love their steamed
buns and were outraged this year to learn that the manufacturer of a popular
brand was using dye to make cheap wheat buns look like the more expensive black
rice buns. In the southern city of Dongguan, 17 noodle manufacturers were caught
adding ink and paraffin wax to give their products the look and texture of more
expensive varieties.

“We have a saying in China that ‘food is the
people’s god,’ so obviously it is very scary for ordinary people when things
like this happen," said Xiao Andong, a veterinary feed expert with the Hunan
Institute of Veterinary Feed Control. Xiao was one of the investigators in the
wedding poisoning case, but he said tests were inconclusive because the food had
been consumed by the time experts were called in.

Clenbuterol, the
suspect in the poisoning, results in a larger, leaner pig that yields more
expensive meat. Although it was banned in pig feed in the 1990s, it is still
used under the name “lean pork powder," because lean pork commands about 60
cents more per pound than fatty pork.

“The profit margin is bigger than
drug trafficking if you add the lean pork powder to the pig food," said Zhou
Qing, an author and dissident, who has styled himself as China’s equivalent of
Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel, “The Jungle," exposed the horrors of the U.S.
meatpacking industry.

In 2006, Zhou published a book about the Chinese
food industry that would extinguish the heartiest appetite. He wrote about foods
tainted with pesticides, industrial salts, bleaches, paints and, especially
nauseating, imitation soy sauce made from clippings swept up from hairdressers’
floors, sold for 5 cents per pound and sent to factories that extract from it an
amino acid solution. Zhou wrote that fish farmers confessed to pouring so many
antibiotics and hormones into their ponds that “they never eat the fish that
they farm."

Although Zhou’s book has been published in 10 countries — it
sold 50,000 copies in Japan alone — it is not available in China. After failing
to get the book in shops, receiving threats from police and getting beaten up by
thugs, Zhou left China in 2008. He now lives in Germany.

“In China, the
reflexive desire to cover up and hide has trumped transparency and the need to
protect public health," said Phelim Kine, a researcher for Human Rights
Watch.

The poor treatment of whistleblowers makes it nearly impossible
for a consumer movement to take root. The Health Ministry went so far as to
announce this month that it would set up a blacklist of journalists who were
deemed to report irresponsibly on food safety issues.

Last year, He
Dongping, a professor of food sciences at Wuhan Polytechnic University, in Hubei
province, published results of an investigation into the recycling of discarded
cooking oil, which was being scooped out of sewers outside restaurants,
reprocessed and then sold at a fraction of the cost of fresh cooking oil. He
found that one in 10 restaurants in his area bought the recycled oil, even
though it was known to contain a carcinogenic fungus.

Afterward, the
professor was reprimanded by the university and ordered not to speak again about
cooking oil. Contacted this month, he hung up when told the caller was a foreign
journalist.

Even victims are punished if they complain too loudly. Zhao
Lianhai, an advertising executive who led a campaign for safer baby formula
after his son developed kidney stones as a result of the melamine-tainted baby
formula, was sentenced in November to 2 1/2 years in prison for “inciting social
disorder."

As a result, people are often too frightened to speak up. More
than a dozen who were contacted about their experience at the wedding in Wufeng
begged not to have their full names used. They said their medical bills had been
paid by the local government and the newlyweds’ parents, who were connected to
the local Communist Party branch. They said they never got answers about what
had happened.

“We asked many times, but there were no answers. The
doctors wouldn’t say. So we stopped asking," said one woman, adding nervously
before hanging up the phone, “Don’t tell anyone I told you this."

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Nicole
Liu and Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

 

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