China’s Appalling Food Safety Record

“China has grown into the third-biggest supplier of foreign food to the U.S., behind Canada and Mexico.” – David Ortega, Michigan State University, Sep 2, 2019

“The country has had an appalling food safety record over the past decade.”
– South China Morning Post, Mar 16, 2019

While there’s no basis for believing you’ll get COVID-19 from eating Chinese food, reports that the virus likely originated in food markets in Wuhan are causing many U.S. consumers to re-examine the safety of food imported from China.

Here are several stories on the topic published before the current virus pandemic made this an emotionally charged subject. 

China’s bids to improve food safety and welfare for its people are just empty words – until the leadership has skin in the game

  • The country has had an appalling food safety record over the past decade, with an abundance of public health scandals affecting children
  • But as long as the ruling class and elites enjoy special privileges, including parallel food supply chains and health benefits, their vows to improve the system will be found wanting

16 Mar 2019

South China Morning Post – Food safety in China can be a highly emotive and incendiary issue because of the country’s appalling record over the past decade, including a litany of public health scandals affecting children.

These range from the infamous melamine-spiked milk powder scandal in 2008, which killed several children and hospitalised tens of thousands of others, to the discovery last year of more than 200,000 faulty vaccines for children.

Chinese parents are constantly on edge because of the alarming occurrence of such scandals in the past, involving unscrupulous businessmen taking advantage of the government’s ineffective regulation and its previous propensity to cover up such incidences.

So it came as no surprise that what initially started in December as parents and pupils complaining about mouldy and smelly food at the canteen of a primary school in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, has gradually snowballed into another public row gripping the nation.

Hundreds of parents stormed a local school and clashed with police earlier this month when several dozen students experienced stomach pains and were rushed to hospital after eating their school lunch.

Even though a subsequent government investigation concluded that the allegations of rotten food were largely unfounded, the damage was already done. As the footage of parents protesting and clashing with police circulated online, and because of the people’s inherent distrust of the government’s handling of such matters, there has been a groundswell of anger and concern on the internet over food safety at schools nationwide.

On Tuesday, the central government was compelled to release new regulations to beef up food safety and quality at schools and kindergartens, effective next month.

As part of these measures, the food procurement and catering process will be subject to monitoring by parent-teacher associations and student representatives. Principals and senior executives are required to have lunch with pupils and toddlers daily, and parents can also be invited to the meals. Read more. 

China’s Role As Growing U.S. Food Supplier

September 2, 2019

Heard on All Things Considered

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Trump administration has imposed new tariffs on more than a hundred billion dollars’ worth of Chinese imports. The targets include chocolate, sweet biscuits and chewing gum.

The import taxes highlight the evolution in the kind of products China sells to the world. NPR’s Scott Horsley reports on America’s growing appetite for food from China.

SCOTT HORSLEY:

Maybe it’s no surprise that China exported $89 million worth of green and black tea to the United States last year. But apple juice – yeah, almost $300 million worth. The U.S. also imported nearly $400 million worth of frozen tilapia from China. And in case the fish was a little bland, we also bought $43 million worth of Chinese garlic.

Agricultural economist David Ortega of Michigan State University says China has grown into the third-biggest supplier of foreign food to the U.S., behind Canada and Mexico. So when the trade war turns into a food fight, the indigestion cuts both ways.

DAVID ORTEGA: It’s not just American farmers that are missing opportunities to send products to China, but then we also have farmers in China whose livelihood depend on products coming here. And likewise, we have, you know, consumers on both ends that are being affected in terms of prices from these tariffs.

HORSLEY: Much of the food the U.S. buys from China requires labor-intensive processing, giving the country’s low-wage workers an advantage. China’s emergence as factory to the world is well-known, but its growing importance as farmer and fishmonger gets less attention.

Tony Corbo, who’s with the environmental group Food & Water Watch, says it’s easy to overlook the Chinese peas and spinach in the frozen food aisle or that river of Chinese apple juice.

TONY CORBO: Not only are you talking about the juice itself as a commodity, but apple juice is used as a sweetener in all sorts of other foods … Read more. 

“Food safety has always been an issue (in China) due to lack of knowledge about contamination and hygiene standards. Even in Beijing I can count on contracting food poisoning at least once a year, despite all my precautions. The problem is, buying anything here that is processed becomes a roll of the dice. Most Chinese believe the food safety system is thoroughly corrupt. Although there are protests, in general people say, “Mei ban fa,” or, “Nothing can be done.” This is the traditional Confucian attitude that teaches one to bend like a reed in the wind — never stand against it like a tree. I do know that almost everyone here believes that government officials have their own private farms to assure that their personal food supply is safe. People also widely believe that the government lies about its results in food testing to avoid panic and protest.” – Food Safety News, July 11, 2014

Why Chinese food safety is so bad

January 16, 2015

Hong Kong (CNN)Almost half of Chinese food-processing plants fail to meet internationally acceptable standards, new figures suggest.

Quality control specialist AsiaInspection said 48% of the “several thousand” inspections, audits and tests it conducted in China last year failed to meet the requirements stipulated by some of its clients — Western food trading companies and retailers.

“There are horror stories, obviously,” Mathieu Labasse, AsiaInspection’s vice president told CNN by phone. “We find factories that just have no basic idea about hygiene standards. People that handle the food, they have no gloves, nothing.”

Labasse said there was a host of reasons for the failings. In some cases, laboratory tests found abnormal levels of pesticides, antibiotics, heavy metals, bacteria or viruses that could put consumers at risk.

Other transgressions included mislabeling packaging, abnormal coloring and odors, bruising and, in the case of seafood, adding water to make the fish appear to weigh more than it does.

China has experienced a string of stomach-churning food scandals in recent years.

The most high-profile recent case involved a U.S.-owned meat factory operating in China that was accused of selling out-of-date and tainted meat to clients including McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC and Pizza Hut chains.

“We see awareness growing but we don’t see on the ground a concrete improvement yet — it will come,” Labasse said.

Labasse said the extremely fragmented nature of China’s food chain — the country has 500,000 food production and processing companies, 70% of which have fewer than 10 employees — made it very difficult for authorities to control and foreign buyers to understand.

“Companies like McDonald’s or KFC are dealing with their suppliers at arm’s length. So they know well the people they communicate with on a daily basis but they don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes,” said Labasse.

“The buyers are focusing their efforts on the people they signed a contract with but they should take the extra step and take control of the full supply chain and going as far as the third or fourth level of suppliers. ” Source. 

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