Glow-in-the-dark pork. Exploding watermelons. These recent oddities from China might seem comical were it not for the country’s abysmal food safety record, which includes deaths and illnesses caused by melamine-laced baby formula, Salmonella-tainted seafood, and clenbuterol-treated pork.
China’s sprawling system of food production is largely unregulated, operating in a Wild West environment in which the drive for productivity and profit outweighs adherence to even the most basic safety and sanitary measures, according to Western experts and senior Chinese officials.
The misuse and overuse of hundreds of chemicals, many of them banned and toxic, have led to death for scores and sickness in hundreds of thousands of people throughout China. Recent opinion polls reveal that a majority of ordinary citizens mistrust their nation’s food suppliers and processors. Those who can, grow their own food. The situation has become a matter of grave concern—and embarrassment—for China’s leaders, who have pledged to severely punish violators, reward whistleblowers, and restructure oversight of the nation’s food safety system.
But many experts remain skeptical of these promised reforms, because it is common for central government pronouncements never to be put into practice, and the local officials who oversee farmers and processors are evaluated and rewarded based on the quantity of food produced, not necessarily its quality. “There is often a serious disconnect between laws and policies issued by the central government and the level of enforcement and implementation put into effect by the local governments,” said Stanley Lubman, China law specialist at the University of California Berkeley School of Law and author of several books on legal reforms in China. “It’s a longstanding, systemic, structural problem.”
The problem affects not only China but also the United States and other countries that import Chinese-grown and processed food. China is the world’s leading seafood producer and one of the world’s largest exporters of fruits, vegetables, and processed foods and ingredients. Over the past decade, exports of Chinese food products to the U.S. have tripled to nearly four billion pounds, worth $5 billion. In 2009, China supplied 70% of the apple juice concentrate, 78% of the tilapia, and 43% of the processed mushrooms that Americans consumed. Excessive levels of arsenic and other toxic metals have been found in U.S. apple juice made from Chinese concentrate. At least one-third of the honey consumed in the U.S. is smuggled in from China and is likely tainted with illegal antibiotics, lead, and other heavy metals. Banned drugs, including human birth control pills and excessive and illegal antibiotics, have shown up in farmed fish exports.
Catching tainted products before they enter the U.S. food system is nearly impossible: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors examine less than 2% of all imported food items, and the handful of FDA officials stationed in China conducted only 13 food inspections between June 2009 and June 2010. “Our next safety scare could come compliments of China,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit public interest research group in Washington, D.C. “Given how pervasive poorly regulated Chinese food exports are in our food supply, the FDA has a responsibility to focus its attention on imported foods,” Hauter said in a June report on China food safety.
Catching tainted products before they enter the U.S. food system is nearly impossible: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors examine less than 2% of all imported food items, and the handful of FDA officials stationed in China conducted only 13 food inspections between June 2009 and June 2010.
Best and Worst Practices
In China, several thousand modern, large-scale, multinational, and joint venture companies and farms employ modern equipment and follow best food safety practices. Alongside these model industries exist 200 million small, independent farms, each less than two acres in size, raising animals and crops. There are also 480,000 licensed food processing enterprises, 80% of which employ 10 or fewer workers. These small growers, processors, and merchants rely on crude equipment and techniques and often ignore basic standards and proper practices.