Food safety spawns public concern
Xi Ping, a Shanghai resident, had already consumed a dozen bottles of a name-brand pickle product when he learned from a television report that his favourite food contains Sudan I, a carcinogenic dye used mainly to colour shoe polish and other waxes.
In no way is Xi's story exceptional. In recent weeks, Sudan I has been found in a variety of foods sold in a dozen Chinese provinces and municipalities, including Beijing, the nation's capital.
The dye is used as an additive not only in tomato paste and ketchup, but also in chili sauce, pepper oil and pickles that are prepared with traditional methods. Fast food outlets, including some KFC branches, have used the dye-tainted products.
The latest discovery of Sudan I in foods follows another food-related tragedy that shocked the nation and is still fresh in people's minds. Thirteen infants died of malnutrition and 171 fell ill in Fuyang, East China's Anhui Province, after being fed with a blend of infant formula that contained mainly starch and little dried milk.
The case was cracked last May. Several local officials were disciplined for dereliction of duty or inaction. Some heartless merchants were jailed for producing or selling the so-called "powdered milk."
About the same time, 40 people in Guangdong Province were hospitalized after drinking liquor adulterated with industrial alcohol. Fourteen died in that incident.
As a deputy to the National the People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, Zhang Wenrong, a businessman in Shanghai, spent nearly six months beginning last June in an investigation of foods sold in 221 local markets.
Poor food quality
In a 64-page report on his findings, he listed 150 "questionable" foods: sleeve-fish preserved in formalin, bamboo shoots kept fresh with industrial sulfur, cuttlefish dyed with ink, and moldy oranges covered with a coating of paraffin.
On the eve of World Consumer Rights Day, March 15, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC) reported that in the past year, it had handled 110,000 cases concerning food safety. In the process, it discovered 920 million yuan (US$111 million) worth of counterfeit and substandard goods.
The State Quality and Quarantine Administration (SQQA) tested 2,000 food samples the same year and found one-fifth of them were below the State-imposed quality standards.
Many Chinese are growing increasingly nervous. Like Xi Ping, the man in Shanghai who has stopped eating pickles, they are changing their eating habits.
He Jiguo, a professor with the Food School of the China Agricultural University in Beijing, views the phenomenon from two perspectives.
"On the one hand," he said, "people are more concerned than ever with the quality of what they eat, in particular with whether foods are safe. Gone are those days when they ate simply in order to be full."
"On the other hand," he continued, "legislation on food must be improved." The professor cited a report published by the SQQA recently to back up his views.
In 2004, according to the report, the SQQA surveyed a million producers of rice, wheat flour, cooking oil, soy sauce and vinegar products. Of these, 79.25 per cent were family businesses with fewer than 10 workers each. Nearly 16 per cent of them were producing without a licence, and quality control and safety inspections were void in 64 per cent of them.
Ji Zhanling, an official in charge of food hygiene in canteen cars under the Shijiazhuang Railway Bureau, went further to cite what he called "loopholes" in current food legislation.
He classified "problem" food and drinks into three kinds: those below the hygiene standards, those below the proper nutrition standards and dangerous types like adulterated liquors and wines.
"The existing laws, like the Food Hygiene Law and the Criminal Law, just focus on whether food is clean and innocuous," he said. "Provisions on nutrition values and safety, if any, are vague."
Shi Sizhen is a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's top political advisory body.
She submitted two proposals to this year's annual session of the CPPCC National Committee in mid-March, demanding improvements in law enforcement efforts to ensure food safety.
"In not a few cases," she noted, "a guy may make 1 million yuan (US$120,900) by producing or marketing substandard or adulterated foods.
"When the wrongdoing is exposed, all the guy needs to do is to pay a fine of a few thousand yuan or, in some cases, may have his business licence revoked. The guy will remain free provided no deaths have been caused. That's wrong."
Governmental role defined
Shi proposed that laws specify, in explicit language, the responsibilities of governments for food oversight, obliging agencies to monitor the entire process of food production and distribution, from purchases of raw and processed materials to the delivery of finished products.
China's highest authorities have responded to such proposals by listing a food safety law on the lawmaking agenda of the NPC. If all goes well, the law should come out by the end of this year, covering the responsibilities of food producers, establishment of food safety monitoring systems, government supervision over food production and distribution, as well as food quality control.
In a related development, people have expressed concern with genetically-modified (GM) foods.
Also on the eve of this year's World Consumer Rights Day, a report was released by Green Peace, a world non-profit organization for environmental protection, noting that several types of food sold in China's supermarkets contain GM ingredients, like the Ritz biscuits and Campbell's soups.
Ma Tianjie, a Green Peace campaigner, was outraged at the double standards of these companies, which are committed not to using genetically modified ingredients in foods sold in Europe.
Ma notes that consumers are becoming more aware and cautious of such foods. In a survey carried out in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in 2004, 62 per cent of the 600 respondents know about GM foods and 57 per cent said they would not buy it - a big leap from 52 per cent and 40 per cent in 2003, respectively.
A poll on the sina.com, one of China's portal websites, shows that nearly 82 per cent of the 6,937 respondents are against the promotion of transgenic rice, which might be planted in large areas for commercial purposes this year.
Some experts insist that transgenic foods are harmless, but Ma takes it with a grain of salt. "Genetically modified food crops came into being not long ago, and it is still early to say whether transgenic foods are safe or harmful," he said.
(China Daily 03/26/2005 page3)