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Food safety problems reemerge in China

China's rising consumer prices reflect pressure on food makers to pay for costlier raw materials and distribution. That increases the temptation to cut corners, experts say.

April 29, 2011|By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Beijing — Three years after China was rocked by a scandal over deadly tainted milk, the country is once again grappling with concerns over food safety.

In recent weeks, reports of tainted food have surfaced throughout China. The list includes diseased pigs used for bacon; noodles made of corn, ink and paraffin; rice contaminated with heavy metals; sausages made of rotten meat and fertilizer; and pork described as "Tron blue" because bacteria made it glow in the dark.

The central government implemented a sweeping food-safety law in 2009 after at least six infants died and tens of thousands of people were sickened by milk adulterated with melamine. But the new spate of food scares underscores how challenging enforcement can be.

An article Tuesday in the state-owned Global Times said food inspectors could be bribed to ignore diseased pork.

Li Duo, a food-safety and nutrition specialist at Zhejiang University, told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post that enforcement was too weak.

"Officials have always been announcing plans to clamp down on illegal food production activities," Li told the newspaper. "But why have they failed to control it, and why are the scandals appearing so frequently? The main reason is that the punishment is too light for businessmen who break the law and officials guilty of dereliction of duty."

Although China's top leaders have responded with promises to crack down on the abuses, experts say they should consider the effect that inflation is having on food producers.

China's consumer price index hit a 32-month high last month, reflecting immense pressure on farmers and food makers to pay for costlier raw materials and distribution. Government price controls often mean those increased costs can't be passed on to consumers.

Rising costs increase the temptation for producers to cut corners, experts said.

"Inflation probably increases the possibility street vendors or farmers sell tainted food or add illegal substances to make more profit or reduce costs," said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "It would make it easier for them."

Yang Guoying, a former general manager of pork-processing companies featured in the Global Times story on diseased swine, likened China's crisis to the one exposed by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 novel "The Jungle," which led to an overhaul of the U.S. meatpacking industry.

"I don't think this has anything to do with moral bankruptcy," Yang said in an interview. "The U.S. went through this 100 years ago. Taiwan went through it a few decades ago. This is about the market we're living in. It's about people trying to make money and trying to survive."

david.pierson@latimes.com

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