Feng Xin: "Min yi shi wei tian"- This ancient Chinese idiom describes food as the most important thing in a person's life. Two of our recent polls on Digest China's website seemed to have proven this wisdom. Our viewers twice ranked China's food safety as the most concerning issue in life – ahead of other things like housing prices, healthcare and education. What concerns people so much about food safety? How safe is our food?
Feng Xin: Well, before we get into these questions and meet our guests, I'd first like to take you for a short shopping trip just like the ones you often have.
Feng Xin: I poured a glass of milk I just bought from the supermarket. How do I know if the milk is safe to drink? Hypothetically, there could be several situations that would make this glass of milk unpleasant, or even unsafe. Case number one – the milk might have expired or gone bad already, even the label says not. Case number two – the milk might be fake, for example, it was made of starches rather than a cow's fresh milk. Or edible coloring agents may have been added to make it appear white. Case number three – perhaps the worst of all – the milk might be poisonous. The manufacturer might have put melamine in it to make it appear to contain more protein. How do I know the glass of milk I'm holding doesn't involve any of the situations? How do I know my food is safe?
Feng Xin: First, we talked to Yan Weixing, secretary-general of the safety committee under the China Food Safety Risk Assessment Center. Yan is also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
Feng Xin: Mr Yan, I'd like to start with a basic question: What's your definition of safe food?
Yan Weixing: If we use plain words that ordinary people can understand, food that doesn't bring harm to our health is safe food.
Feng Xin: How do you distinguish between safe and unsafe food?
Yan Weixing: China now has a series of regulations, or national standards. That's one way to decide. However, I don't think it's the only way. Our Food Safety Law has a series of requirements, regulating the raw material and production processes of food. Only when integrating all these items can we decide whether a type of food is safe. Of course, food safety standards are made according to normal production conditions. We need to separate these from criminal behaviors.
Feng Xin: What do you mean?
Yan Weixing: Well, look at it in terms of crimes; they have nothing to do with standards. No matter how harsh you make the regulations, if somebody wants to commit a crime he will still do it. Generally speaking, our food safety is guaranteed, and we are still heading toward a better future. What people see most often nowadays are constant crimes committed without any conscience, like adding non-edible substances to food. For example, milk was tainted with melamine in 2008. It wasn't supposed to be a substance in food at all but was purposefully added to milk. If we separate these crimes from some inherent food safety issues, people would probably not think our food safety is that bad.
Feng Xin: How do you think the public misunderstands food safety issues?
Yan Weixing: Let me put it this way. Let's look at some factors which can contribute to food safety hazards. I think the first category of factors occurs during normal production processes, when some contaminants enter our food chain. There are so many contaminants in our environment, and they will inevitably enter the food chain. We use pesticide when growing plants. We use veterinary drugs when feeding animals. We have to use them. If we don't, we won't be able to guarantee our volume of production, and therefore we won't even have enough food to eat.
Feng Xin: That's a dilemma.
Yan Weixing: It is a dilemma. So on the one hand, we research and develop some harmless pesticides, which have little influence on human health. We need to work on that. On the other hand, we need to train farmers to follow some operational standards when using pesticides. We also made national standards for pesticide residue. As long as it's within the range, it won't affect human health. By taking multiple approaches, we control these contaminants.
Yan Weixing: Now let's talk about the second category of factors, which bring risks to food. They are forged, or fake, food products. Among these, some may cause safety problems. Some may not. For example, a manufacturer uses starches to forge milk powder. When such milk powder is consumed by adults it might not cause a big problem, because adults eat a variety of food. However, when the milk powder is consumed by babies it might cause a big problem, because it doesn't contain enough nutrition. Of course, this is when we assume the starches are made of rice or sweet potatoes.
Yan Weixing: Let me give you another example. Some manufacturers use food coloring agents rather than eggs to make dried noodles appear yellow. This might not cause a safety problem. But if the manufacturers add substances that are not edible they will definitely bring a safety hazard, because the substances are not food coloring agents but industrial coloring agents, which are definitely harmful to food safety.
Yan Weixing: Let's talk about the third category of factors - non-edible substances, like "lean meat powder", melamine, as well as industrial dye, that we often see.
Feng Xin: After sorting out the types of food risks or danger we might face, how safe is our food after all?
Feng Xin: In 2011, Tsinghua University and Insight China, a magazine under the Chinese Communist Party publication Qiushi, conducted a survey with more than 1,000 respondents from all Chinese provinces. The results show that more than 60% of respondents think the food safety situation in China is “very severe”. More than 80% worry about food safety. Do these perceptions reflect the real situation?
Feng Xin: We called Yunwuxin from our studio. He is an author who has written several books on food safety and is currently doing his PhD studies in Food Engineering at Purdue University in the United States.
Feng Xin: Mr Yunwuxin, more than 60 percent of respondents think the food safety situation in China is very severe. More than 80 percent worry about food safety. What do you think is the reason?
Yunwuxin: I think a key phrase here is "sense of security." Consumers lack a sense of security. In fact, such a sense isn't directly related to the food safety situation. Obviously, China has so many news reports about food. This is due to China's circumstances. Other countries have significantly less categories of food than China, because their degree of industrialization is very high. Usually a huge corporation takes over a bulk of the market. The government only needs to monitor the few big corporations. The food in this particular market usually won't have any big problems. China is the opposite case. More than 80 percent of food supply comes from small workshops or enterprises. It's extremely difficult for the government to supervise all of them. This is one reason.
Yunwuxin: Another reason is that many Chinese media lack rationality and professionalism in their reporting on food safety news. I wrote an article at the end of last year, "An account of China's food safety news in 2011". Through my detailed analysis, I found many well-known food safety incidents – those that made the public very worried – are a result of the media's sensationalism. They are, in fact, not problems at all.
Feng Xin: Can you give us an example?
Yunwuxin: For example, watermelons and strawberries were found to contain growth-accelerating chemicals last year. These reports completely departed from scientific truth. In fact, these chemicals are not harmful at all. Another example is the dairy company Mengniu, which added more aflatoxins in its milk than the required limit. This was a clear violation of the national standards. Any punishment would be reasonable. However, the milk itself was not as harmful as what the media described.
Yunwuxin: Like Luo Yunbo said, who is the dean of College of Food Sciences at China Agricultural University, even though the chemical in the milk exceeded the national standard, its ability to cause cancer was extremely weak. We need to sanction the company because it violated production standards, not because its likelihood of causing cancer. But the media cannot distinguish the two questions most of the time.
Feng Xin: Apart from negative influence, do the media exert any positive influence?
Yunwuxin: A positive influence would be that the media pushed some government agencies to take action.
Feng Xin: Let me get back to what we just talked about: the public's sense of security, the feeling. Are we too scared, or is our food safety situation really that bad?
Yunwuxin: I think the scare is exaggerated. We all want to have absolutely safe food, but this is impossible. Food always has risks. So once there is a tiny risk it will be exaggerated by the media, and the public will get very scared.
Feng Xin: We just talked about the media. Let's talk about the public. According to the survey conducted by Insight China magazine and Tsinghua University, Chinese consumers are most worried about five food safety issues, including: first, pesticide residue; second, excessive use of food additives; third, meat from the carcass of a sick animal; fourth, non-edible substances like melamine; and fifth, non-cooking oil, like swill-cooked dirty oil. Do you think the public has a reason to worry about these problems?
Yunwuxin: Yes, it's reasonable to worry about these problems. We should pay attention to them, and supervision agencies should take care of these problems. In terms of pesticide– in fact, the pesticide we now use is not as poisonous as most people think. A little pesticide that exceeds the national standards will not do much harm. The pesticide residue standards are for law enforcement, meaning once the chemicals exceed the limit our attention should be drawn and supervision agencies need to control them. The standards usually leave a big safety allowance. They don't indicate that once chemicals exceed the limit they will harm you.
Yunwuxin: About food additives– there are about 2,400 kinds of food additives in China, and only a few dozen of them are likely to be abused. Even if these few dozen are overused, since it'd be impossible for you to eat a particular type of food for a long time, the harm is still not as serious as people think. As far as I know, the additive that can really do harm is nitrite that is illegally used in smoked meat and fried chicken. Many producers use too much and cause food poisoning accidents. Other additives, even if they are overused, will not likely reach an amount that will cause you harm.
Feng Xin: While both experts explained the misunderstanding or misconception that might have contributed to the public's health scare, what about the real food safety issues that do exist? We talked to Lei Xiaoling, a National People's Congress deputy and professor in food safety.
Feng Xin: What do you think is the most significant problem with our food safety?
Lei Xiaoling: I think the most significant problem– I've also been thinking about this question. In fact, our testing ability and enforcement isn't any less adequate than other countries. We test pretty much all the required items. The frequency of our inspection and sample size isn't small. We also have more supervision personnel than other countries. Therefore, I think the main problem, perhaps, lies in the fact that the punishment isn't severe enough. Also, there are multiple departments overseeing our food safety, so their responsibilities might not be very clear.
Feng Xin: Take an example of a carton of milk. What supervision departments, or stages of supervision, does it have to go through from the moment it's produced until it arrives on our table?
Lei Xiaoling: I can't tell for sure, but at least it should be tested before it goes out of the factory, meaning its manufacturer has to do the testing first. Then it's the quality inspection department, which usually makes sample tests. At the stage of sales, the industrial and commercial departments should also inspect it. It then arrives to the consumer. So now we've been pushing to integrate some supervision departments, including testing departments, so that we can improve efficiency in the supervision of food safety.
Feng Xin: NPC deputy Lei Xiaoling mentioned the government divides the supervision of food safety into separate parts. What exactly is the system like? How does it work? And what can we do to make our food safer? In our next episode, we will look into these questions.
“Min yi shi wei tian”- This ancient Chinese idiom describes food as the most important thing in a person’s life. Two of our recent polls on Digest China’s website seemed to have proven this wisdom. Our viewers twice ranked food safety as the most concerning issue in life – ahead of other things like housing prices, healthcare and education. What concerns people so much about food safety? How safe is our food?