Why Can't China Make Its Food Safe?

Or can it? The latest in an ongoing series of discussions with ChinaFile.


A man selling pork at a small stall gives a customer his change at a roadside market in central Beijing.(David Gray/Reuters)

This post is adapted from a conversation on ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site. See the full exchange here.

Isabel Hilton:

You have to marvel at the ingenuity and enterprise of food adulteration in China: can it really be more economic to get rat meat to mimic mutton than just to raise a sheep? But bearing in mind that I come from a country that only recently discovered that some of its major brands' "value" beef burgers were at least partly horse, an animal that the Brits, perhaps irrationally, don't want to encounter on a plate, I think we have to recognize that China is not entirely alone in this.

In Britain, the industrial revolution, with its separation of food production from consumption, also brought a host of appalling food adulteration that took some time to regulate effectively. In the early 1980s in Spain, a still unexplained episode involving fake olive oil left scores of people with permanent neurological damage. In the West we have a whole separate set of problems around food: maximum returns come not from selling fresh, perishable produce but from processing: hence additives, sugar, salt, colorings and the obesity epidemic.

All that said, the sophistication of Chinese adulteration is impressive. Much of it demands a fairly high degree of technical knowledge, which suggests a certain professionalism  though not a high level of ethics. To pick only a few examples, it is unlikely that it was the dairy farmers who had the idea of putting melamine in milk to mimic high protein levels, the episode that left hundreds of babies with damaged kidneys. Experts whom chinadialogue spoke to said it required familiarity with the Kjeldahl method, used in milk testing to determine nitrogen content, as well as knowledge of the protein content and chemical properties of several additives -- not something you would expect to find on the average farm. Then there were beansprouts that had benefited from the application of a hormone that made them grow faster and without roots. They sold very well, but long-term consumption could have caused cancer. So who was the expert on hormones? If you can bear to read it, chinadialogue has a downloadable report on these and other scandals, and the struggles of the authorities to track down what is really in China's food.

With this level of technical ingenuity in the adulteration, there are two problems: it is genuinely difficult for the inspectors to keep up. And, as in other areas, it is not clear that they always want to. It is no surprise that the implementation of the regulations is, to put it kindly, unreliable. It is a well worn cliche in China that, however good the rules, they are rarely applied as they should be. In recent weeks we have had scandals over pollutant scrubbers in power station chimneys being switched off to save money, illegal discharge of untreated waste water, fake Environmental Impact Assessments, not to mention misleading air quality data. In all these cases, inspectors are either discouraged from doing their job or too thin on the ground to make any difference -- and of course, the same authorities who mandate the inspection often have a financial stake in the factories.

Finally, as with environmental pollution, food safety destroys any trust that citizens might still have in their government. So mistrustful have they become that Chinese travelers abroad now routinely head to the supermarket instead of the fashion store and British supermarkets have had to ration the purchase of baby milk because enterprising Chinese were buying in bulk and shipping it back home at a profit. Citizens who no longer trust the assurances of the authorities are taking their own initiatives: check out this story about about the Fudan University student whose food safety "wiki" crashed after receiving 25,000 hits in in two hours. All these citizens' initiatives are creating real alternative sources of information and creating transparency through direct action. With transparency comes more pressure: the government either has to clean up the mess or resort to ever more censorship, thus escalating the loss of trust.

A version of this post appears at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.