China’s government officials began the year with assurances to the world that 2013 would mark a new era of food safety. The bureaucrats were still patting each other on the back, when in March, a flotilla of 16,000 dead hogs bobbed down the Huangpu River toward Shanghai. The mass of bloated pigs floating down the river may as well have been China’s version of the Spanish Armada. Caught in a “Who ya gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” moment, officials dropped their figurative champagne glasses and declared the carcass invasion a breach of their new food safety focus.
In essence, they simply moved the goalposts. The new era of food safety which was supposed to begin in January is being updated due to counter-revolutionaries and an ‘’even newer era” of food safety will begin in April or May or June or next year or 2050… or something like that.
And indeed, the “even newer era” of food safety began in April — and lasted all of one month before officials were scrambling again, arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Against the backdrop of a raging bird flu outbreak, police arrested 63 members of a rat meat gang. No, the rats were not floating down the Huangpu en masse this time, but the rat meat was being casseroled with fox and mink, and managed to fool a substantial amount of palate-seared consumers who thought they were eating mutton and bought $1.6 million worth of the furry cocktail.
The South China Morning Post reports 20,000 tons of counterfeit meat has been seized by police in the last three months. Much of the food fraud involves “meat of diseased animals, steroid-manipulated meat and sewer oil.” Chinese police have arrested over 900 people and shuttered 1,700 factories and chop-shops involved in the adulterated meat trade.
The stories and circumstances are invariably similar: uninspected meat injected with illegal flavoring chemicals, steroids, additives, nitrates, or gelatin; and always in environments or locales serving as bacterial havens. In March, police found 15 tons of contaminated beef jerky awaiting distribution. It was festering with bacteria, and loaded with chemicals to disguise what it actually was — duck meat. According to the New York Times, another fake meat ring was caught with 8.8 tons of “toxic chicken feet,” marinated with a brew of illegal additives.
China’s bureaucrats have learned to get in front of food scandals and are quick to issue Band-Aid proclamations. Mao Shoulong, a Renmin University professor, told the Times that despite increased food safety regulation, “there’s been no fundamental change for the better.”
In 2011, researchers at Nanjing Agricultural University found that 10 percent of Chinese rice was tainted with cadmium, a carcinogenic metal that causes severe damage to the kidneys and lungs. Two years later, the government finally revealed as much last week, when officials with the Guangzhou Food and Drug Administration admitted that nearly half of rice samples tested in the first three months of 2013 tested positive for toxic cadmium levels. The People's Daily (official newspaper of the Communist Party) was quick to dole out avuncular advice, recommending shoppers "diversify" their diets to avoid a concentration of food products from any particular region, thus reducing the chance of toxic poisoning.
After years of Chinese food scandals, the list continues to grow. If it’s not meat; it’s melamine milk. If it’s not milk; it’s counterfeit wine. If it's not wine, it's rice. If it’s not rice; it’s tainted honey. Illegal honey is a billion-dollar business globally and China has a sticky finger in every pot. Trace the traffic flow of the international chop-shop network of laundered honey — all roads lead to China. (Chinese honey sold domestically is of even worse quality, with fake honey making up half of market volume.) China, the No. 1 producer of honey in the world at 300,000 tons per year, has taken a bizarre get-tough approach to honey adulteration by cracking down — on the quality of honey imports from Australia.
In the future, expect more government paper regs, more assurances of change, more arrests — and more carcass armadas clogging up Chinese rivers.
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