Americans all too often chafe at federal oversight of their lives. Reading about recent food safety scandals in China, where there’s fewer than one food inspector for every 10,000 people, reminds one of why consumer advocacy organizations and federal regulations from agencies like the Food and Drug Administration are so important.
Here are a few examples from a recent New York Times article:
In recent weeks, China’s news media have reported sales of pork adulterated with the drug clenbuterol, which can cause heart palpitations; pork sold as beef after it was soaked in borax, a detergent additive; rice contaminated with cadmium, a heavy metal discharged by smelters; arsenic-laced soy sauce; popcorn and mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach; bean sprouts tainted with an animal antibiotic; and wine diluted with sugared water and chemicals.
Even eggs, seemingly sacrosanct in their shells, have turned out not to be eggs at all but man-made concoctions of chemicals, gelatin and paraffin. Instructions can be purchased online, the Chinese media reported.
One more example, involving the death of a young child:
Consumers have also been repeatedly poisoned by excessive levels of the chemical nitrite in meat, Feng Ping, a professor at the Beijing Academy of Food Sciences, told an international food-safety conference last month. The most recent suspected case occurred April 21 when a 1-year-old Beijing girl died after eating fried chicken bought from an outdoor vendor, a local newspaper reported.
These food safety violations are all the more glaring after a 2008 milk powder scandal, when melamine-contaminated baby formula sickened 300,000 infants and killed at least 6. A food safety law was passed in 2009 in China, with hundreds of regulations in keeping with international norms. While half of the country’s dairy food companies have had to stop production unless they comply with new licensing rules, abuses continue. As the New York Times notes, in China, illegal additives are readily available and cost-effective while “manufacturers calculate correctly that the odds of profiting from unsafe practices far exceed the odds of getting caught.” China has nearly half a million food producers, 80 percent of which have ten or fewer workers.
The rise in food safety scandals is at least indirectly related to the economic boom China is currently experiencing. But the country’s rising wealth and the growth of its middle class are creating their own set of problems, of which food safety abuses are just one. Another is income inequality: The New York Times has been running a number of articles about the widening gap between the rich and poor in China. In 1988 the average income of the top 10 percent of Chinese was about 12 times that of the bottom 10 percent; by 2007, those at the top earned 23 times more. Income inequality is manifested in numerous ways including the newly rich building excessively lavish tombs.
China’s “iron political controls” mean that “no powerful consumer lobby exists to agitate for reform, press lawsuits that punish wayward producers or lobby the government to pay as much attention to consumer safety as it does to controlling threats to its own power.” In view of the government’s swift clampdown at even anonymous online hints of “Jasmine Revolution” protests in the wake of those in the Middle East, Chinese consumers will have to keep choosing what they eat with more than a little care.
Photo by star5112