Friday, January 15, 2010

China: Unsafe milk and alcohol

The issue of trust is never far from the lips of some expats living in China. Concerns over food and product safety are never far away. The milk scandal in 2008 created panic and destroyed consumer confidence and those worries returned recently after it was revealed the Panda brand milk was the subject of an investigation. The fresh scandal over toxic milk products has shocked Chinese consumers, and state media reported claims that officials waited almost a year before warning the public [Guardian].

Now it appears beer drinkers may not be safe from adulterated products. China Daily reports that there is a rise in counterfeit foreign beers being sold in bars which may pose a health hazard to those drinking them. According to enforcement officers with the bureau of quality supervision in Chaoyang district, fake beer sold in some Beijing bars could cause sickness because of insanitary conditions in the brewing process.

"These beers are produced in small workshops with no disinfection process," said Wei Jinsheng, head of the enforcement team, "Customers in bars usually wouldn't check what they are drinking, which raises the chance of getting a disease." In a recent raid on a rented house in Wuliqiao village, officers found four men making counterfeit beer that they hoped to pass off as Budweiser, Corona and Carlsberg, the report claims. The men were said to be filling empty foreign beer bottles with Chinese beer and resealing them using a bottle-capping machine. Officers seized more than 10 boxes of the adulterated beer. According to Wei, it is easy to pass off fake beer because many brands have a similar taste.

Of course the bars contacted by the paper all insisted they would not sell fake beer and that many dealt directly with manufacturers. One did concede that problems could occur however. Chad Lager who has run the Fubar in Sanlitun for three years said the fake alcohol problems run along the distribution chain and employees.

"Most of the bars do not try to make fake alcohols. At least the foreign bars I've dealt with," he said, "But sometimes an employee buys a bottle of fake Absolut (vodka), brings it to work and steals your bottle of real Absolut. Or, it could be delivery drivers or further down the chain." The news is worrisome for Beijing's drinkers, especially expats who like to indulge in beers that remind them of home [BeijingBoyce].

But it also raises the question of trust. Fake products are everywhere in China. While some are relatively harmless, apart from the economic damage they do to companies, others pose a significant of even lethal risk. There are fake NorthFace coats, fake Gucci handbags and of course hundreds of counterfeit DVDs and CDs. Sometimes even the news of the counterfeiting turns out to be fake as Reuters reported a couple of years back after Chinese media reports on Beijing TV suggesting someone had sold fake buns made of cardboard turned out to be untrue.

Bloggers have often aired their grievances about the lack of trust experienced in China. One writes about how his dog had been made ill from expensive and unnecessary treatment from a veterinary practitioner. The post drew a great number of responses, many from other expats who expressed their lack of trust in China, its people and its products. One post submitted by Nathan is typical of the views held by many. "As for the food I just hear too many stories about water, chemicals and god knows what is injected into meat and other products to raise their sale value," he says. Another writes, "I lived in China for 6 years, and just recently left. Trust (or lack of it) was one of the significant factors affecting my decision. The milk scare ... really rammed that home – not just for the fact that there were people putting harmful additives into something that was part of my daily diet, but the fact that the authorities knew about it months before it was announced but kept a lid on it to prevent a scandal breaking out just before the Olympics."

If you can't even trust the government monitors and health inspectors, who can you trust? "It broke the last shred of trust I had in the safety of the food chain and also in the people that should have been monitoring the food chain to ensure its safety," the poster says, "How many more things are going on that we just don't know about – maybe nothing, but the lack of certainty just keeps gnawing away and gnawing away and drives you crazy if you think about it. Which leaves you really with only two options 1) don't think about it, and hope that when the next problem happens it doesn't affect you and 2) leave."

Some are pragmatic but are critical nonetheless. "This country really is a land of contrasts. On one hand you have some amazing people who will go out of their way to help you out and make you feel 'welcome' in their country, then there are people who routinely give you the 'white price'. What makes it so difficult here is that you never know who is who around here, it's easy to assume that everyone is on one extreme, which can either limit your experience or be downright dangerous. The balance is almost impossible to find here."

The me, me, me society seems to be peculiar to the mainland rather than all of Chinese society, one writer observes. "I left the mainland and moved to Hong Kong. People have asked me about the differences and I start talking about institutions and the rule of law etc., which make HK feel more like a society and less like a bunch of individuals all out for themselves. But this issue – trust – is what it basically comes down to, and what you feel on an everyday basis. I would like to explain the feeling to friends and family back home but I don't know how to do it without sounding like a terrible colonial type saying 'never trust a Chinaman'."

Surrounded by scandals, toxic milk, different menus for foreigner (with inflated prices) and the knowledge many speak ill of you behind your back (in Chinese, thinking the laowai, or foreigner, doesn't understand), it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking all Chinese are 'on the make' and are 'untrustworthy'. Perhaps it is best to act on another idiom, that of 'never trust a book by its cover', and try not to 'tar everyone with the same brush', difficult though it may be.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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