Who can guarantee China's pork is safe?

Updated: 2011-04-06 17:21
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BEIJING - Detection of the toxic additive clenbuterol in pig feed has once again undermined Chinese consumers' confidence in the country's food producers.

The Chinese government is serious about the scandal. The Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) announced that it will cooperate with eight ministries and commissions to launch a one-year crackdown on illegal additives in pig feed which have proven to be toxic to humans.

In big cities, like Chengdu and Nanjing, contaminated products from the food company suspected to be involved in the scandal have been soon moved off the shelves in supermarkets.

Some provinces have ordered that slaughterhouses should check their products everyday to avoid unsafe meat to be sold to the public.

Wan Long, Chief Executive Officer with the Henan-based Shuanghui Group, China's largest meat producer involved in the clenbuterol event, apologized last week.

Wan admitted the company's mistake and disclosed at a meeting that the scandal had so far cost the company more than 12.1 billion yuan (about US$1.85 billion).

The government hopes that all these efforts would produce some results in saving consumers' confidence.

Pork is the most popular meat in China. Each year more than 600 million pigs are harvested, according to Wang Zongli, vice director of the husbandry office in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Statistics from the China Animal Agriculture Association (CAAA) show that in 2009, pork accounted for 65 percent of the meat consumed by Chinese.

Clenbuterol, a poisonous chemical that can reduce a pig's body fat to produce lean meat, was found in meat products from Jiyuan Shuanghui Food Co., Ltd last month.

Experts said that the chemical is very harmful to people's health, as it might cause cancer and other diseases.

Li Peitang from Dayi County of southwest China's Sichuan Province has been raising pigs for more than 10 years, and now owns a pig farm with 3,000 hogs, making 1 to 2 million yuan a year.

"I heard of the trick before to feed pigs clenbuterol," he said.

Clenbuterol is very cheap and using it can reduce a pig's fat by 10 percent, Li says.

"Lean pork fetches 1.6 yuan higher per kilogram than fattier cuts," he said.

"The scandal will hit the meat industry hard," said Qiao Yufeng, vice chairman of the CAAA.

In 2008, melamine-tainted milk powder killed at least six infants and sickened 300,000 across the country, which deeply eroded consumers' faith in the integrity of China's dairy industry.

Experts and many ordinary Chinese have pinned their hope on stepped government monitoring and revised regulations to ensure safe production of food in the country.

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A netizen nicknamed sdcharles has blogged, "Where have all the people in charge of supervision gone? Only after the problem has come to light do they start doing something. Why shouldn't they all be fired?"

While Zheng Fengtian, a professor with the the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University of China said, "It's ridiculous that Shuanghui didn't check for loopholes in supervision. Rather, it talked about feeding pigs. Is it shifting public attention?"

Zheng believes that the widespread use of clenbuterol is just one of many problems with the country's meat industry. "Antibiotics are fed to pigs to stop them from getting sick, while growth hormones are added to quicken their growth."

According to a central government circular issued last October, various governmental departments were given specific responsibilities to strengthen monitoring and regulations to stop clenbuterol and other toxic substances being used in meat production.

However, Qiao Yufeng notes that the departments might shift their responsibilities so they can escape blame should something bad arise.

Zheng suggests tightening supervision at the last stage in the supply chain before the products reach the market.

"Disqualified products have no market. This will force producers to behave," he said.

While Li Peitang, the farmer, said that most of the problems concerning meat quality existed at the feeding stage.

"We should ensure the safety of feed so as to tackle the problems from the beginning."

Qiao said that the general public and mass media could play an important role in supervision. "They have always been the whistle-blowers. It is a strong force for social supervision."

Meanwhile, Shao Yunkai, a media officer with the Consumers' Association in Heilongjiang Province, cautioned consumers to be sensible.

"With the improvement of people's living standard, consumers paid more attention to health," he said. Lean pork with less fat was considered to more healthy.'However, he said, "fat meat has its nutrition as well, and blindness of consumers in their choices might give opportunity to the immoral producers."