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Health jitters shortening China's menus
( 2004-01-24 11:14) (Agencies)

No more steaming platters of civet cat? Only a few southern Chinese hanker for them anyway. But look closer: Suddenly, China has no American beef and no South Korean wild boar. No cloven-hoofed animals from Tajikistan. No poultry from Vietnam and Japan.

In a country where people say "Have you eaten today?" when they mean hello and are renowned for stomaching just about anything, the world's health problems are shortening the menus these days.

Over the past month, on fears of SARS, bird flu, mad cow, foot-and-mouth disease and even hog cholera, China has banned those animals and their meats. And with bird flu confirmed in Thailand and Cambodia on Friday, more quarantine actions could be in store.

While the bans have so far had no major impact on the food supply of China's 1.3 billion people, and restaurant owners who use mostly domestic meat supplies insist they aren't worried, the actions are striking nonetheless in their very number.

"It is better to ban these products preemptively than to wait for major problems," said Chen Wei, an official with the China Meat Association, the industry's government-backed trade group.

"These prohibitions are beyond argument," he said. "We still lack a clear understanding of where these diseases are actually coming from. We're simply trying to protect Chinese consumers and Chinese industries."

The quarantines illustrate a growing official willingness to take swift action to reassure the populace that it is safe whether from unemployment, criminals or foods considered risky.

Food safety has been a major issue in recent months in the tightly controlled state press. It has given wide coverage of initiatives to safeguard everything from the national grain supply to the fried-egg crepes sold as breakfast foods on the streets of Beijing.

That has only increased with the latest jitters and particularly with more international coverage this month of the chance that exotica eaten by southern Chinese, particularly the civet, might be linked to severe acute respiratory syndrome. Civets have been slaughtered by the thousands in the south.

On Sunday, the Beijing Daily Messenger newspaper ran a graphic front-page photograph of 800 piglets smuggled from Vietnam as pork being burned alive in tightly packed cages in the southern region of Guangxi. Masked health authorities looked on.

American beef has been sealed in its meat lockers in Beijing, border posts at China's frontier with Vietnam have been reinforced to prevent errant infected poultry from slipping in, and all border markets in Yunnan province have been barred from selling chickens.

There has been talk of seizing eggs as well, and Chinese agricultural inspectors around the country are scouring the domestic chicken supply beak by beak, looking for problems.

"Any other country would do the same things," said Zhang Kunsheng, a professor of food science at the Tianjin University of Commerce.

In recent years, China has at turns banned everything from Pennsylvania poultry to British beef over what it calls health concerns. But the sword has two edges: China's shrimp was barred from European Union (news - web sites) countries sporadically after trace amounts of antibiotics were found.

China's growing market for meat, import and export both, is giving it great incentive to tighten its regulations as it modernizes.

According to the International Meat Secretariat, China accounts for more than half the world's pork production and consumption and is the fourth-largest beef producer. The group links 65 percent of the recent growth in global pork consumption to China.

Last year, Philip M. Seng, the secretariat's president, told Chinese meat producers that food safety a major part of ensuring "greater integration of China in the world meat trade."

"Regulations are only as assuring and effective as the level of enforcement," Seng, also head of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, told the China Meat Association. "China seems to be moving in the right direction in this regard."

As bird flu fears spread throughout Asia, and China moves to institute more bans, experts caution against tarring the country as a place where unsafe practices are rampant. They point to the bans as proof that a culture so focused on eating would ensure it's a safe activity.

"The Chinese people's traditional ways of cooking meat are safe especially in comparison to others. We boil and stir-fry and seldom eat raw," said Zhang, the food sciences professor. "We certainly don't care about food safety less than other countries do."

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