China's Worsening Food Safety Crisis

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Food-borne disease could affect an estimated 300 million Chinese consumers every year.

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An employee works at the production line of an edible oil company in Sanhe, China (Reuters)

Last month in the 2012 World Grand Prix Finals, China's women's volleyball team fell to countries that did not even qualify for the 2008 Olympics, where China won bronze. The coach blamed his team's abysmal performance on their veggie diet, saying that the athletes had not had any meat for three weeks. The players were certainly not vegetarians: they abstained from meat lest contamination of chemicals such as clenbuterol interfere with their urine tests. The excuse was not as lousy as it initially sounded: early this year, China's State General Administration of Sports issued a document forbidding its athletes from consuming meat outside of official training facilities.

The sports incidence epitomizes the rapidly rising concerns about food safety in China. Twenty years ago, maybe except for the handful of expats living in China, few Chinese would consider food safety a problem. Today, almost everybody I spoke with in China -- people I knew well and those I did not -- expressed their concern about adulterated food. My speculation that food safety problems in China have worsened is substantiated by the website "Throw out of window" created by Wu Heng, a postgraduate of Fudan University, to track China's food safety incidents from 2004 to 2011. In the spring of 2012, a survey carried out in sixteen major Chinese cities asked urban residents to list "the most worrisome safety concerns." Food safety topped the list (81.8 percent), followed by public security (49 percent), medical care safety (36.4 percent), transportation safety (34.3 percent), and environmental safety (20.1 percent).

Due to government incentives to cover up or downplay problems associated with social-political stability, it is difficult to gauge the full extent of food safety problems in China. An Asian Development Bank report released in 2007 (prior to the tainted baby formula scandal) estimated that 300 million Chinese might be affected by foodborne disease annually. Food borne disease can result from consumption of food contaminated by toxins, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites. 

While it is relatively easy to link a health problem (e.g., acute diarrhea) to infections resulting from the consumption of contaminated food or water, it is unlikely for chronic health conditions (e.g., cancer) caused by food tainted with toxic chemicals to be included in annual statistics, even though illegal food additives or noxious substances in food are becoming a major health hazard in China. A 2011 study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene suggests that more than 94 million people become ill annually from bacterial foodborne diseases alone, which led to approximately 3.4 million hospitalizations and more than 8,500 deaths. By way of comparison, the CDC estimates that foodborne bacteria, viruses, and microbes combined cause 48 million Americans to fall ill, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths a year.

What is to blame for China's food safety crisis? In an opinion piece published in International Herald Tribune on August 17, I argued that the crisis highlighted China's failure to establish a code of business ethics as its market economy expands faster than government regulators can keep pace. In the absence of effective regulations and moral constraints, private profit too often trumps public good. Ironically, what is happening in China is exactly what Karl Marx described 150 years ago. He said that with adequate profit "there is not a crime at which [capital] will [not] scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged." In a country where serving God is still suppressed, and "serving the people" is no longer in vogue, serving money seems to be the main attractive option. In an October 2011 nationwide online survey of nearly 23,000 adults, more than half of the respondents did not think complying with ethical standards was a necessary condition for success in Chinese society (again, by way of comparison, only 24 percent of financial executives in the U.S. say illegal or unethical conduct may be necessary for success).

As a Tsinghua University professor said, since counterfeiters and adulterers are also victims of other unsafe food, "this is a society where everybody intoxicates everybody." Wu Heng echoed by warning that Chinese are "exchanging feces to eat." A neo-Hobbesian world of everyone against everyone is probably an overstatement. However, a functioning society needs basic moral codes in order to restrain dangerous behaviors. In a make-believe world where that baseline morality is suffering a great leap backward, some social breakdown may not be a far-fetched scenario.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Yanzhong Huang is a Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, with an expertise in public health in China and East Asia.

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