Made in China: tainted food, fake drugs and dodgy paint
London Guardian | July 5, 2007
China is facing a global crisis of consumer confidence as the country's food safety watchdog acknowledged this week that almost a fifth of the domestic products it inspects fail to reach minimum standards. Following a number of contamination scandals in the US, the world's biggest exporter is struggling to prove that it can match quality with quantity.
In the first half of 2007, 19.1% of products made for domestic consumption were found to be substandard, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said in a statement on Tuesday. Among products made by small firms, the failure rate was nearly 30%.
"These are not isolated cases," Han Yi, director of the administration's quality control and inspection department, told the state media. Underlining his concerns, officials said hundreds of bottles of fake human blood protein were found in hospitals and excessive amounts of additives and preservatives were detected in children's snacks.
The trust deficit is enormous and growing. Shi Ying, 50, a businesswoman, said she was so concerned about food safety that she found it difficult to shop. "I dare not eat farmed fish or meat because most are fed with growth pills or pumped with bad additives. I worry about vegetables in case they are tainted with pesticide. I even think twice about the water I drink because it might contain heavy metals."
Although Ms Shi lives in Shenzhen, one of China's most-advanced cities, she has started to grow her own vegetables, eat less meat and drink water only from respected bottled brands or the family well. When she does have to shop, she puts safety above patriotism.
"I think foreign food is less risky. Even though they are not as fresh, I trust products from the US, Europe and Japan because those countries protect their environments. Sometimes when I see foreigners blithely eating raw lettuce in Chinese restaurants, I worry for them."
While the worst violations are in the domestic market, the repercussions are felt beyond the country's borders. China fills the shelves of Wal-Mart, Tesco and Sainsbury's with low-price products. But as its world presence has grown, so have concerns about safety.
First, there was a mysterious spate of cat and dog deaths in the US this year that was later attributed to tainted pet food from China. Next, in the US and UK, came the recall of more than 1m Thomas & Friends toy trains coated with poisonous lead paint from China. Then, independence day fireworks were withdrawn in the US because of their dangerously unpredictable sense of direction.
Most of these scandals occurred in the US, where food safety is fast becoming a front in the trade war between the world's biggest consumer and producer.
"I think we have reached a point unfortunately where Made in China is now a warning label in the United States," said a Democratic senator, Richard Durbin, recently. The issue also topped the agenda of recent talks between the US treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, and the Chinese vice-premier, Wu Yi.
Other countries have also expressed concern. Last year Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, said that European customs officers had seized fake birth control pills and HIV drugs from China. According to Mr Mandelson, half the counterfeit goods found in the EU originate in China.
Japan has also called for higher safety standards, and Singapore, Australia, Panama and the Dominican Republic have recalled millions of tubes of Chinese-made toothpaste that allegedly contained dangerous levels of diethylene glycol, a toxin.
It remains unclear whether this represents a surge in the number of unsafe goods or simply wider coverage at a time of rising trade friction. But the threat to China's business is growing.
In an attempt to quell concerns, the government said yesterday it was drawing up new safety rules for oral care products. Beijing has also promised to revise its inspection system for other products. Last month, the government published its first five-year plan for improving food and drug safety. It closed 180 food factories in the first half of this year and seized tonnes of sweets, pickles, crackers and seafood tainted with formaldehyde, illegal dyes and industrial wax.
But the government also stands accused of reacting slowly to scandal rather than dealing with the root causes: a lack of trust in the safety standards of a country with a profit-first economic policy and a secretive, unaccountable political system.
Public confidence has not been helped by an official response that includes denial and scapegoating.
"I think it would be better if the media would stop playing up this issue," a foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said this week. Last month, the former head of China's food and drug agency, Zheng Xiaoyu, was sentenced to death for accepting 6.5m yuan (£425,000) in bribes from pharmaceutical companies to expedite the approval of new drugs.
Media reassurances are unconvincing. "More than 80% of China's products are up to standard," the Business Daily said yesterday. It was not meant ironically. This was a gain on the previous year.
Along with health and the environment, consumer safety has been one of the biggest victims of the rush to get rich. The domestic market has probably been affected more than international trade because export standards are higher than for goods sold in China. Last month, food inspectors said paraffin wax, dyes, formaldehyde and cancer-causing compounds were detected in food produced by unlicensed and small producers.
There have also been scandals related to fake or poorly made drugs. Last summer, 11 people were killed by antibiotics that contained diethylene glycol, an industrial toxin. In 2005, two boys in Guangdong province died from rabies after receiving bogus vaccinations. A year before, at least 50 babies in Anhui province died and more than 100 were malnourished after being fed fake milk formula, some of which had only 6% of the vitamins, minerals and protein needed for a growing infant.
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