Tuesday, October 28, 2008

China's food scandal hits eggs

China has once again fallen under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. In what may come of little surprise to many, another food crisis has gripped the country. Following the much publicised milk scandal, China is now reeling from the revelation that eggs have been found with unacceptably high levels of melamine, the same substance found in a number of milk products. The level of melamine found in the eggs was 4.7 mg per kg. Melamine found in food meant for children under three and lactating mothers should be no higher than one mg per kg according to some experts, though ideally there should be no such contamination.

It is not clear how the melamine found its way into the eggs, but it has been suggested that chicken feed had been contaminated. Melamine has often been illegally added to products to boost perceived protein levels and the latest incident may have wider implications. If animal feed has been tainted with the chemical, then meat, fish and other derivatives may also be under scrutiny. It is a problem which Chinese authorities have failed to properly address despite several high profile incidents. On March 15th 2007, the FDA in the US learned that certain pet foods were sickening and killing cats and dogs. The FDA found contaminants in vegetable proteins imported into the United States from China and used as ingredients in pet food. But even then it was not only pets that were identified as being at risk. A portion of the tainted pet food was used to produce farm animal feed and fish feed. FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered that some animals that ate the tainted feed had been processed into human food. Although risks were deemed to be ‘low’ according to the FDA, an investigation was mounted and on February 6th 2008 the FDA announced that two Chinese nationals and the businesses they operated, along with a U.S. company and its president and chief executive officer, were indicted by a federal grand jury for their roles in a scheme to import products purported to be wheat gluten into the United States that were contaminated with melamine [FDA].

So despite the warnings, China and food inspection authorities outside the country have continually failed the consumer in testing food and making sure it was fit for consumption. The effects have widespread implications. Beyond the health implications, the ‘Made in China’ brand has been sullied further resulting in loss of sales. This in turn has closed factories in China and added to the unemployment lines. White Rabbit, the once popular milk candy hopped back onto the shelves in mid-October, but it remains to be seen if consumer confidence will return [Xinhua]. On an Internet bulletin board a one-time fan of the confectionery writes, “If we eat the white rabbit candy, we’ll be the lab rats” [WSJ]. Others spoke of their general distrust of all milk products. “I have stopped drinking milk, let alone creamy candies. I might start buying them months from now when everything subsides. I've loved them since my childhood. But no White Rabbit any time soon” said Ni Yuezhen, 56, outside a Shanghai store where the candy was re-launched. Another was even more scathing. “I bought quite a few White Rabbit candies for guests ... but they are useless” said a shopper who only gave her surname as Wang. “I shall never buy the candies again” she murmured, pushing past salesgirls in yellow hats and matching miniskirts who were handing out candies at the store's entrance. An ex-patriot spoke to tvnewswatch expressing her sadness at the possible demise. “It’s very sad” Ms Wang said. “I remember eating them as a child. But now who’s going to trust them?” There is much to be concerned about. Four Chinese babies died of kidney failure and more than 53,000 fell ill this year after consuming tainted dairy products; and nearly 4,000 young children remain in hospital. And only last week it was revealed that 1,500 dogs had been killed by melamine contaminated feed [CNN].

The food scares will hit both companies and their workers hard. Wal-mart has already pulled eggs from their shelves in China [CNN] and others are likely to follow. Only one brand of eggs, Kekeda, produced by the Hanwei Group, has so far been implicated in the latest scandal but it is sure to worry other producers [CNN]. Eggs are used in a wide selection of products, from cakes, biscuits, pastries and confectionery. And many of these may be exported giving rise to concerns abroad. Exported green beans which sickened several people in Japan recently were found to be heavily contaminated with pesticides [CNN].

The issue has worried Chinese authorities but despite announcements by Premier Wen to clean up the food industry, scepticism remains. “We will improve legislation in food safety” Wen said during a 43-nation Asia-Europe Meeting summit on Saturday. The state-run China Daily newspaper said the law will impose safety standards on food additives and ban all harmful chemicals. It will also allow the government to recall unsafe food if companies fail to do so. But the World Health Organisation says China needs to go much further [CNN / BBC].

China has been swept by a series of food and product safety scandals involving dozens of different products. They include dangerous and lead contaminated toys, fake drugs, unsafe tyres, toothpaste containing diethylene glycol [engine coolant], melamine tainted pet food, fish and prawn containing banned fungicides and antibiotics, pesticide contaminated beans and dumplings, and defective baby cribs.

Fears amongst consumers already exists in the West [BBC] and both the Chinese government as well as any foreign companies operating in the country must endeavour to improve product and food safety before the ‘Made in China’ label becomes irreparable. But maybe it is already too late.

On CCTV-9’s Asia Today there was no mention of the latest food scare. Instead there was a focus on attempts by Bangladesh to clean up street food with new hygiene standards being rolled out across towns and cities. China Today focused on Japan’s recent food scare surrounding Nissin’s Cup Noodle which made one woman ill. Focusing on problems elsewhere and ignoring domestic problems is unlikely to bring about a solution. In fact the reports on CCTV were generally upbeat saying that China would see stable exports. Despite more than 50% of toy factories having closed in 2008, one toy trader spoke of strong confidence in the industry. China needs to do more than open up to the world. It needs to open its eyes and see what’s really going on; and acknowledge it.

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