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China’s Food Safety Issues
Plague Exports AND Imports

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 28, 2007

China has been top-of-mind lately in the U.S. produce industry, and we’ve been thinking hard on the subject with several important pieces:

China Plays Down Food Safety Problems and Chinese Garlic and Food Safety both dealt with the implications of food safety problems in China for the broader industry.

With Chinese Apples Pose Threat To U.S. Apple Industry, we explored the future of the apple industry in the United States in light of the rapidly increasing Chinese production.

In Pundit’s Mailbag — China, COOL And International Opportunities, Professor Thomas Reardon of Michigan State University opined on the reality of Asia and the opportunity for America.

China still remains a question mark on the world food scene. CNN reports that China Shuts 180 Food Factories For Using Illegal Chemicals, which implies that China is serious about enforcing its laws and food safety standards:

BEIJING, China (AP) — China has closed 180 food factories after inspectors found industrial chemicals being used in products from candy to seafood, state media said Wednesday.

The closures came amid a nationwide crackdown on shoddy and dangerous products launched in December that also uncovered use of recycled or expired food, the China Daily said.

Formaldehyde, illegal dyes, and industrial wax were found being used to make candy, pickles, crackers and seafood, it said, citing Han Yi, an official with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, which is responsible for food safety.

“These are not isolated cases,” Han, director of the administration’s quality control and inspection department, was quoted as saying.

Han’s admission was significant because the administration has said in the past that safety violations were the work of a few rogue operators, a claim which is likely part of a strategy to protect China’s billions of dollars (euros) of food exports….

Han said most of the offending manufacturers were small, unlicensed food plants with fewer than 10 employees, and all had been shut down. China Daily said 75 percent of China’s estimated 1 million food processing plants are small and privately owned.

According to Han, the ongoing inspections are focusing on commonly consumed food, such as meat, milk, beverages, soy sauce and cooking oil. Rural areas and the suburbs — where standards are likely less strict — are still considered key areas for inspectors, he said.

China Daily, a government-owned newspaper, also pushed the story, indicating the government wants publicity for its enforcement efforts:

A nationwide inspection of the food-production industry has uncovered the use of a wide range of illegal ingredients in the processing of foodstuffs, the top quality watchdog said Tuesday.

Industrial raw materials, such as dyes, mineral oils, paraffin wax, formaldehyde and the carcinogenic malachite green, have been used in the production of flour, candy, pickles, biscuits, black fungus, melon seeds, bean curd and seafood.

Some processors also use recycled or expired food in their operations, according to the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.

“These are not isolated cases,” Han Yi, director of the administration’s quality control and inspection department, said at a press conference.

He said most of the cases involved small, unlicensed food-processing plants employing less than 10 people. All plants caught engaging in illegal practices have been shut down, he added.

Administration figures show that about 75 percent of the 1 million food-processing plants in the country are small and privately owned.

preliminary figures released yesterday show that since December, when the nationwide inspection was launched, quality inspectors have seized 200 million yuan ($26 million) worth of contaminated or substandard foodstuffs.

At least 180 food plants have been shut down, and 37 had their licenses revoked. Eleven cases have been handed over to judicial organs.

Han said the inspection, which has been focusing on widely consumed foodstuffs, like wine, meat, milk, beverages, soy sauce and cooking oil, is not finished. Rural areas and the suburbs are still considered key areas for inspectors.

Scandals involving substandard food were the subject of many media reports last year. Red-yolk salted duck eggs contaminated with an industrial dye and turbot fish containing carcinogenic residue were two of the more high-profile incidents.

The issue burst into the international spotlight this year after melamine-contaminated wheat gluten and rice protein exported from China tainted pet food in North America.

Han said the administration always puts food safety first and had shown no mercy to violators.

Both the Food Hygiene Law and the Criminal Law ban the use of chemical ingredients or harmful substance in food production. Violators who cause serious poisoning or death face sentences of at least 10 years in jail or even death.

However, Ye Zhihua, a senior researcher of quality standards and testing technology with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, worried that the country’s many small food plants and inadequate number of enforcement officers could hamper the inspection.

Ye said such small businesses, which usually have poor management and sanitary conditions, are scattered across the country, making supervision difficult.

So the good thing is that Chinese officials are acknowledging a systemic problem. The bad news is that the small, scattered nature of Chinese production will make enforcement of standards very difficult.

We take this to mean the obvious: China, for all its advances, is not uniformly safe. One can’t just buy from anyone and assume the product meets legal standards or food safety standards. You have to only buy from people you know who are in a position to supervise production to world-class standards.

For all the earnestness with which China seems to be addressing its food safety issues, we sense a bit of push-back as in this article about China seizing U.S. food:

BEIJING (Reuters) — China has seized two fruit shipments from the United States and warned it would apply greater scrutiny to U.S. cargoes, even as it tightens the screws on manufacturers of unsafe food at home.

The country’s quarantine bureau said in a statement on its Web site (www.aqsiq.gov.cn) that quality inspectors had detained U.S. shipments of orange pulp, produced by Modern Skill Co. Ltd, and of preserved apricot from Mariani Packing because they contained high levels of bacteria, mildew and sulfur dioxide.

“When dealing with food from America, local quarantine bureaus should tighten their procedures,” said the statement seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

“The bureau reminds importers that the food safety standards should be specified in contracts to reduce transaction risk.”

China’s food safety record has drawn international attention since mislabeled chemical exports were mixed into cough syrup in Panama and pet food in the United States.

In apparent response, China has also announced the seizure of substandard food shipments at its ports.

Although it is possible that some sub-standard product was being shipped to China or that there was deterioration in transit, it smells to us like China warning the U.S. not to push too hard against Chinese food exports, perhaps reminding U.S. Congressmen that U.S. companies have something to lose.

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