Food safety scandals bring reality-check to ‘Chinese dream’

After more than 900 arrests over the selling of fake meat, including rat as mutton, officials face an uphill battle to change a fraudulent culture

In the wake of China’s recent food scandal, Chinese premier Li Keqiang has vowed to enforce the toughest food safety regulations.

“We need to crack down on practices that violate laws and regulations with a heavy fist, and make the lawbreakers pay an unaffordable price for their illegal practices,” Li said at a national videophone conference last week.

“Although we have a tight budget, we’d rather spend more on food safety so that the public can be confident about China’s food safety,” the premier added.

Li’s vow came amid China’s latest food scandal, which appears far more serious than Europe’s recent horsemeat crisis.

China’s public security ministry has announced more than 900 arrests since the end of January for producing and selling fake or tainted meat products. One striking case in Shanghai revealed traders passing off meat from rats and other small mammals as mutton. Meanwhile, farmers in east China’s Shangdong Province were found to be using highly toxic pesticide when growing ginger.

In Europe, food safety officials uncovered a number of companies passing off horsemeat as beef – mostly in ready-meals and burgers. 

Food safety expert Bridget Hutter, professor at the London School of Economics, said the recent Chinese food safety scandal was “especially worrying because of the very serious health risks”. Unlike the horsemeat scandal in Europe, she said, “rats are carriers of disease and parasites and represent a real health risk to the population.”

Steve Tsang, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, told chinadialogue the recent scandal was hardly surprising.

“The use of illegal or substitute ingredients is, at the moment, limited mainly by imagination, technology and weak law enforcement,” Professor Tsang said.

An editorial on the news website Shangdu goes further in asking “how can we improve people’s living standards when we are in such a chaotic state that there’s food safety concern with people’s daily diet? How can we pursue our Chinese dream?”

“The food problems, environmental threats and negligence pose a broad challenge to the credibility of a regime that claims to have its people’s interests at heart, but has done such a poor job of protecting their welfare,” Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the South China Morning Post, wrote in a recent Guardian column.

In an effort to soothe public discontent, China’s Supreme Court recently issued guidelines for punishing food safety offences. Meanwhile, premier Li warned at last week’s State Council conference, “never again should we allow a new credibility crisis like the milk powder crisis,” referring to the 2008 scandal which left babies across the country poisoned by tainted milk powder. Several days ago at another meeting, the premier called for a tougher food and drug safety regulatory system to be set up.

Food culture must change

However, observers are sceptical that the government is heading in the right direction.

“A strong regulatory system will seek to correct and adjust production practices before moving towards more serious penalties such as imprisonment,” said John Yasuda, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China. “Arresting those ‘responsible’ might appeal to our sense of justice, but no one can seriously believe that after arresting ‘x’ number of individuals food safety has significantly improved.” 

Tsang said the immediate issue was not regulation, but enforcement: “If existing regulations are enforced honestly, openly and efficiently, I expect to see a significant improvement even before the best practices are incorporated into Chinese laws and regulations."

In Europe, the recent horsemeat scandal brought up painful memories of the BSE crisis of the 1990s, where public health was put at risk by sub-standard farming practices. This time the blame has been placed on cost-cutting by food processors, with image-conscious supermarkets quick to placate worried consumers by promising stricter testing of meat.

While observers in Europe might still worry about a latent culture of cheap meat and cost-cutting, for China, says professor Hutter, there is a much greater need for a change in food culture.

“Food safety scandals happen partly because people are uneducated and unaware of the risks and the correct way to handle food; partly because food handlers cut corners and do not follow food safety and hygiene rules; partly because some people are fraudulent and try to profit from others’ misfortune; and partly because there is no effective food safety regime in place to check on compliance with the regulations.”

“All of these need attention,” she said.