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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.

June 26, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • A worker is stopped from making rice dumplings at an unlicensed workshop in Beijing after the rice was found to be contaminated with sodium cyclamate, an illegal artificial sweetener. Tainted pork, toxic milk, fake eggs and other scandals have shaken Chinese consumers and officials.
A worker is stopped from making rice dumplings at an unlicensed workshop… (AFP/Getty Images )

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.

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