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China’s food scares are a major worry

By Paul French, China editor

This week Chinese consumers were again hit with yet another food contamination scare.

In the latest food scare, Chinese media reported that junk food behemoth KFC was using a potentially harmful chemical in the cooking process at restaurants in China; and reports said that the health ministry was investigating.

The Asian Development Bank has estimated that 300 million Chinese people annually are affected directly in some way by tainted food, which could be costing the country around US$5 billion annually.

The ADB fears that this situation could exacerbate China’s risk of major disease outbreaks.

In this sense perhaps China is truly global – the number of western consumers concerned about food contamination is growing; last year ethical shoppers in Britain were upset to find out that their ‘organic’ chickens were far from it, and their ‘free range’ eggs were fake.

Interestingly, the trick was discovered by Trading Standards Officers – not one organic consumer had complained that the food tasted any different!

Of course, thus was it ever around the world – a book by Frederick Accum in 1820 revealed that every major food on sale in London was either falsified or had been tampered with.

Last year was also notably the 100th anniversary of the publication of Upton Sinclair’s classic expose of the Chicago meat packing industry The Jungle.

The list of scams over the decades is long indeed – coffee that was really chicory; floor sweepings of cayenne sold as pepper; tea leaves that were really sloe leaves painted green with copper; confectionary coloured with lead. Tastes change, but the cons don’t – now we have turmeric substituting for saffron in packets of spices; diluted olive oil, frozen fish pumped full of water, etc.

Premium foods such as supposedly ‘green’ or ‘organic’ foods have long been a major target of the conmen – more than one Yorkshire born sheep has gone on a fortnight’s holiday to Wales to eventually appear in the shops as more expensive Welsh lamb.

And watch those frozen prawns – they can contain as much as 44% water after a good hosing to bloat them up in the factory before being packed.

We’ve reported here before on everything from carcinogenic fish to fake gum, fake eggs to fake organic produce in China, and not forgetting meningitis-inducing, partially-cooked, parasite-ridden snails.

A warning here for food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants – one snail poisoning victim just got a US$1,948 pay out.

A major problem in China is a lack of what Tony Blair would call ‘joined up government’.

China has at least nine state level ministries independently issuing food safety and hygiene regulations – when the number of provincial and lower level departments involved is added in, the numbers become legion.

Rules and regs overlap and contradict each other, and are oft times just plain confusing.

Interestingly the ADB report indicates that if left unchecked, large scale (and presumably millions of small scale) food contamination issues have the power to become a force affecting social stability – so now is also part of the great hexie shehui (harmonious society) debate

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