Food safety an increasingly important issue

January 27, 2014 by Kevin McSpadden

Three years ago Wu Heng woke up in his home in Shanghai and read a newspaper report that would profoundly affect him.  “It said that there was fake beef on the market in our country. The beef was actually made of pork, but also some additives. I researched and discovered that the additives could give you cancer. I was shocked because I had been eating that meat for six months!” he said.

For Heng, enough was enough. He wanted to do something and so he founded the website, which collates into a single archive the publicly reported food safety violations published in the Chinese press between 2004 and 2011. With the help of 30 volunteers, Heng was able to comb through newspapers and reputable online sources to discover over 7,500 reported cases of food safety violations during this eight-year period. Later, he mapped the violations by type and location, thus creating a powerful tool to campaign for food safety.

The data on his site rapidly became an effective visual tool to help readers understand the size and scope of China’s food safety problem. And Chinese citizens began to take notice in their tens of thousands.

“I got a lot of attention. I became an internet phenomenon. On 5 May 2012 my top views came and I got a million views on that day,” Heng told China Outlook. Government officials checked out the site, but to date he has faced no restrictions. “After I finished the website, I realized that maybe anyone could become the victim of food safety issues. I kept talking to people to tell them about the problem.”

For Chinese citizens, food safety is becoming increasingly important. Since 2008, Chinese anger surrounding food safety has jumped by 26%, according to a Pew Research study. It notes that 38% of Chinese people now view food safety as “a very big problem.” Just a few examples suffice to show the extent of the problem.

The most egregious scandal occurred in 2008 when formula baby milk powder was found to have been adulterated with melamine, a chemical that is carcinogenic and highly toxic if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. The crisis affected an estimated 300,000 babies, with 50,000 hospitalisations and six deaths from resulting kidney failure. It led to baby milk supplies in Hong Kong being rationed as thousands of worried Chinese travelled to the nearest place where they thought they could obtain safe supplies. Two of those involved in supplying the melamine were later tried and executed and the scandal led to rigorous inspections in both Europe and the United States of any milk products originating in China.

Dr. Peter Ben Embarek from the World Health Organization’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses told China Outlook: “We have seen a lot Chinese families not having any confidence in the local products. They often prefer to buy products from international sources”. Before his current job, he worked with the WHO China office and aided the Chinese government in policy development.

Another scandal erupted last March, when more than 16,000 dead pigs were found floating down the Huangpo River, which flows directly through Shanghai. The pigs, which died from porcine cicovirus, were a major threat to Shanghai’s drinking water supplies. A few months later, in August, the Shanghai Daily reported that illegal mills in the city were bleaching, colouring and repackaging out-of-date poultry to resell to the public.

Already in 2014, China has been hit by a big food safety story: in early January, Wal-Mart, which has 400 outlets in China, was forced to recall all its donkey meat because tests showed that samples in some outlets had been tainted with fox meat. Wal-Mart felt it necessary to issue a public apology via Sina Weibo saying, “We are deeply sorry for this whole affair.”

Nor are these the only cases in a country where food safety crises are a part of everyday life. So much so, that it is now a factor that influences the decision of some Chinese to leave the country. “As far as I can tell, there are many families moving to other countries and food safety is always one reason, although it is not the only one,” Heng said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is the case, with recent press articles consistently citing food safety as a contributing factor for migration, particularly amongst wealthy Chinese. China Outlook has previously reported on the trend of the super-rich leaving China due to concerns over food safety.

The precise number of people leaving is not easy to gauge, although according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development the Chinese emigrant population is just under six million, making China second in the world for having the most registered emigrants, only behind Mexico. Of this figure, around 1.7m are what the OECD calls “highly educated”, with a reasonable expectation to contribute to the growth of China’s economy and culture.

Phelim Kine, Deputy Director of the Asian Division of Human Rights Watch, says it is difficult to single out food safety as the sole contributor towards emigration, but it is still a vital factor. “We do know that people with money in China are leaving in droves. If you look at the statistics, they send their kids abroad, and they buy property. As for the reasons why people do this, food safety is not alone, but part of a trinity of clear and present dangers-of-safety issues,” Kine told China Outlook.

The consistency of the scandals, along with the seriousness of the offences makes it understandable why families with children, or those with money, are tempted to move.

In response, the Chinese government has promised to reform legislation and to crack down on violators. The first major move came in 2009 when China passed a new Food Safety Law, which increased inspections, raised standards and toughened penalties. “[The law] is being revised now because it was not perfect. But it was a major step forward,” Dr. Embarek said. Last June, in a move designed to show that the new legislation has teeth, 8,200 people were arrested for food safety crimes.

Rhetoric from Xi Jinping’s government suggests that the environment and food safety will be a top issue for China in 2014. In December, during the annual Economic Work Conference, food safety was listed as the number one priority by the Communist Party.

This comes hard on the heels of the Third Plenum whose communiqué rammed home the message by stating that, “In constructing eco-civilization, it is imperative to build a sound system and to protect the ecological environment through the system.”

Fine words, but it remains to be seen how this rhetoric, along with a revised Food Safety Law, will impact food production. Dr. Embarek agrees that the government is emphasizing food safety. “I think it clear that food safety is being taken very seriously by the government of China. It has been a top priority for the last few years. The system is improving rapidly, but there is still a lot that needs to be done,” he said.

However, Embarek notes that the responsibility for food safety lies in production, and the role of the government is to provide oversight.

At the same time, farmers in particular need more education about modern farming methods. Take the example of fertilizers. In the 2000’s, fertilizer companies either did not educate or deliberately misled farmers, who regularly spread far too much fertilizer on their crops to create the highest yield possible, without thinking about the consequences. The predictable outcome is unhealthy levels of nitrates in the harvest and groundwater.

China is not alone in facing food safety issues. But without concerted effort now, the stream of emigrants leaving the country in search of safe food will become a torrent.

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