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China’s Food Safety Crisis: How Serious Is the Problem?

by Yanzhong Huang
August 27, 2012

An employee works at the production line of an edible oil company in Sanhe, Hebei April 12, 2011. An employee works at the production line of an edible oil company in Sanhe, Hebei April 12, 2011 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).


Last month in the 2012 FIVB World Grand Prix Finals, China’s women’s volleyball team fell to countries that did not even qualify for the 2008 Olympics, where China won Bronze. The coach blamed his team’s abysmal performance on their veggie diet, saying that the athletes had not had any meat for three weeks.  The players were certainly not vegetarians: they abstained from meat lest contamination of chemicals such as clenbuterol interfere with their urine tests. The excuse was not as lousy as it initially sounded: early this year, China’s State General Administration of Sports issued a document forbidding its athletes from consuming meat outside of official training facilities.

The sports incidence epitomizes the rapidly rising concerns about food safety in China. Twenty years ago, with an exception of the few expats living in China, few Chinese would consider food safety a problem. Today, almost everybody I spoke with in China – people I knew well and those I did not – expressed their concern about adulterated food. My speculation that food safety problems in China has worsened is substantiated by the website “Throw out of window” created by Mr. Wu Heng, a postgraduate of Fudan University, to track China’s food safety incidents from 2004 to 2011.  In the spring of 2012, a survey carried out in sixteen major Chinese cities asked urban residents to list “the most worrisome safety concerns.” Food safety topped the list (81.8%), followed by public security (49%), medical care safety (36.4%), transportation safety (34.3%), and environmental safety (20.1%).

Due to government incentives to cover up or downplay problems associated with social-political stability, it is difficult to gauge the full extent of food safety problems in China. An Asian Development Bank report released in 2007 (prior to the tainted baby formula scandal) estimated that 300 million Chinese might be affected by foodborne disease annually. Food borne disease can result from consumption of food contaminated by toxins, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites. While it is relatively easy to link a health problem (e.g., acute diarrhea) to infections resulting from the consumption of contaminated food or water, it is unlikely for chronic health conditions (e.g., cancer) caused by food tainted with toxic chemicals to be included in annual statistics, even though illegal food additives or noxious substances in food are becoming a major health hazard in China. A 2011 study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene suggests that more than ninety four million people become ill annually from bacterial foodborne diseases alone, which led to approximately 3.4 million hospitalizations and more than 8,500 deaths. By way of comparison, the CDC estimates that foodborne bacteria, viruses, and microbes combined cause forty eight million Americans to fall ill, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths a year.

What is to blame for China’s food safety crisis? In an opinion piece published in International Herald Tribune on August 18-19, I argued that the crisis highlighted China’s failure to establish a code of business ethics as its market economy expands faster than government regulators can keep pace. In the absence of effective regulations and moral constraints, private profit too often trumps public good.  Ironically, what is happening in China is exactly what Karl Marx described 150 years ago. He said that with adequate profit “there is not a crime at which [capital] will [not] scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged.” In a country where serving God is still suppressed, and “serving the people” is no longer in vogue, serving money seems to be the main attractive option. In an October 2011 nationwide online survey of nearly twenty three thousand adults, more than half of the respondents did not think complying with ethical standards was a necessary condition for success in Chinese society (again, by way of comparison, only twenty four percent of financial executives in the US say illegal or unethical conduct may be necessary for success).

As a Tsinghua University professor said, since counterfeiters and adulterers are also victims of other unsafe food, “this is a society where everybody intoxicates everybody.” Mr. Wu Heng echoed by warning that Chinese are “exchanging feces to eat.” A neo-Hobbesian world of everyone against everyone is probably an overstatement. However, a functioning society needs basic moral codes in order to restrain dangerous behaviors. In a make-believe world where that baseline morality is suffering a great leap backward, a social breakdown may not be a far-fetched scenario.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Robert E Michel

    Give the food from China to the republicans who send our jobs abroad.

  • Posted by craig

    A free press is absolutley necessary to keep the public informed what they are eating and to enable people to organize openly for government oversight of the food chain.

  • Posted by Saved

    Without salvation they are doomed to fail.
    Read and follow the Bible.

  • Posted by tom weschler

    Great article. .

    The article is well documented. Thank you. However, the 2011 study is in Chinese. Anyway to source in English.

    Also, is food safety in China really worse than US when you consider their population is 3X US? 8500 deaths in China and 3000 deaths in US?

  • Posted by This Web-site

    I have been checking out a few of your stories and it’s nice stuff. I will definitely bookmark your site.

  • Posted by Benton Fine

    Excuse me Robert but republicans are the ones who care. Unlike you.

  • Posted by Frank

    Food safety is something that is critical and I am glad the United States has a program and agency to deal with this. I am not for big government either. By the way, the person who cited how many incidents as an indicator has a false premise. Much of our food is coming form China so the statistic is flawed because if any of the US incidents were caused by the Chinese food problem, and this is highly likely, then the whole statement must be thrown out. The free market is not hurt by strong standards that are enforced. Without those enforced standards there is no competition only corruption and cheating that kills people. The US just needs to have the GAO check up on ALL agencies to make sure they are lean and efficient and that any regulation is needed, simple, economical, and good; not a favor to any special interest group.

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