Tainted pork scandal widens

Guest post by chinadialogue interns Liang Ying and Guo Xiaohe

At 3.15pm on World Consumer Rights Day, CCTV ran an exposé revealing that meat producer Shuanghui’s pig feed contained “clenbuterol”. After this, clenbuterol and associated food safety issues have attracted a lot of attention. 

Clenbuterol is a drug that promotes the growth of lean meat and inhibits fat. Pig feed containing clenbuterol boosts development of pig meat (lean meat), meaning the amount of feed required is reduced, the meat can be marketed earlier, costs are cut and the cost of pigs per unit increases. However, it can be very harmful to the human body, for example causing arrhythmia that can lead to severe heart disease.

Although standards of clenbuterol use vary from country to country, in mainland China its use is explicitly banned. However, consumers’ love of lean meat means some businesses take dangerous risks.

According to a report on the FT’s Chinese website, after adding clenbuterol, pork prices rise by 0.2 yuan per kilogram, meaning farmers can earn up to 40 yuan for a 200-kilogram pig; and when traders take the pigs to the market, each pig can then earn tens of yuan, or even 100 yuan and more.

The CCTV reporter discovered that several major aspects of the inspection and supervision of pig breeding, trafficking, slaughtering and selling can easily be bypassed. The so-called “bodybuilding pigs” resulting from this emerging use of clenbuterol, now an entrenched part of local regulatory loopholes, enter into trafficking. Spending around two yuan per pig can buy what is called a “pass” certificate to prove they comply with quarantine rules. By bribing Henan provincial boundary checkpoints with 100 yuan, traders can then get the go-ahead for the journey all the way to designated slaughterhouses in Nanjing, without the need for clenbuterol testing – paying 10 yuan per pig can get them an “animal product quarantine certificate”. Having this proof, the “bodybuilding pigs” can legitimately enter Nanjing’s market.

In the wake of the Shuanghui scandal, people cannot help but worry: if products from the major meat brands contain clenbuterol, can other brands be trusted? Is adding “clenbuterol” an unspoken rule of the industry? China’s chief veterinary officer, Yu Kangzhen, on March 29 told Xinhua News Agency reporter Hui Yingcheng: “At present, our country’s pig products are generally safe. The illegal use of clenbuterol is an isolated phenomenon.” He pointed out, “this clenbuterol case in Henan is just a few people in an individual county knowingly breaking the law by producing, selling and using clenbuterol.”

Xinhua reported that, according to the Ministry of Agriculture’s surveillance of major cities, in the last three years, pig urine and pig liver clenbuterol test pass rates were above 99%; in the first quarter of this year, the test pass rate was 99.4%. But, this does not seem enough to dispel people’s worries. On April 1, China’s Food Science and Technology Network wrote that there are more “lean meat pigs” out there, and other types of drugs called “new style clenbuterol” are also being used by breeders of other animals. When these new stimulants first appeared, they were not within the scope of inspection, and the existing regulation was not sufficient.

Economist Ye Tan said: “Following the proliferation of clenbuterol, the biggest threat is normal pigs being forced out of the market.” This kind of “bad pigs drive out good pigs” phenomenon will form a vicious cycle, greatly affecting the market and people’s health.

So how to put an end to clenbuterol use? Ye Tan says: “Respect for the independence and integrity of the law, combating money-seeking civil servants, establishing high level civil compensation mechanisms and fostering healthy consumption habits, these are the key to the stamping out use of melamine and “body building pigs”.

Image from Yangcheng Evening News