Food travails from a bustling China

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Frank Ching
18 Apr 2020

News that pet food had to be recalled in the United States and Canada after dozens, possibly hundreds, of cats and dogs developed kidney failure after eating pet food containing wheat gluten from China that was tainted with melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers, is a wake-up call both to Beijing and to countries that import foodstuffs—for both humans and animals—from China.

For people living in Hong Kong, the news was not particularly startling since the special administrative region, which depends on China for most of its food and water, has found out in recent years that virtually any food imported from the mainland—whether it be meat, fish, vegetables or fruits—may well be hazardous to your health.

Only on 16 April, the television news reported that dried seafood, such as cuttlefish, was found to contain arsenic as well as heavy metals.

This came after news that Chinese farmers had used Sudan Red, an industrial dye that causes cancer, to make the yolks of eggs redder and more appealing. Soon after that it was reported that certain farmers took special steps to make mangoes look ripe before their time and chemically made strawberries redder and apples ruddier.

Last year, Hong Kong discovered that imported freshwater fish from the mainland contained malachite green, a chemical banned in both the West and China for its cancer-causing properties. Malachite green, it turned out, was used by fish farmers to rid fish of fungus and parasites and make them look sleeker and healthier.

All in all, it appears, the more attractive something is, the more reason there is to suspect that it has been tampered with and may cause cancer.

To Beijing's credit, it voluntarily halted the export of suspect eels once it realised the problem. But Hong Kong, at least, was not notified that eels already on the market may be problematical.

The European Union imposed an import ban on Chinese products of animal origin in January 2002 after traces of antibiotic residues were detected. But it lifted the ban after China undertook to test all consignments for export and to issue a sanitary certificate for consignments found to be in conformity with EU requirements.

No doubt, more countries will demand the same assurances from China over time and Beijing will have little choice but to comply.

The problem is that China's growth has been at a rate that is both unprecedented and phenomenal over the last 28 years. Basically, it went from a backward country with minimal trading influence in the world to an economic powerhouse. In fact, as of last week, China overtook the United States as the world's second largest exporter—second only to Germany.

But China, as can be imagined, has had great difficulty in growing so rapidly and it is, after all, still a developing country that is trying to cope with all the problems associated with modernisation and globalisation. The Chinese are doing their best to put institutions and personnel in place but it is only natural that mistakes will occur.

There is also the problem of communication between the provinces and the central government. Two years ago, as a result of the furor over freshwater fish, Beijing gave Hong Kong a list of fish farms in Guangdong province that were authorised to raise fish for export to Hong Kong. But when buyers went to Guangdong to look at those farms, they discovered to their great surprise that some had long gone out of business.

Another problem in China is that the Communist party still maintains a culture of secrecy. There is a tendency to cover up shortcomings. However, when other people's lives are at stake, trying to save face is the last thing that Chinese officials should be thinking of.

The rest of the world needs to be understanding of China's problems—and vigilant for the sake of their own people's health.

The marvel is that, up to now, a major catastrophe has not occurred in the area of food safety. China, to be fair, tries to ensure that its exports are of the highest quality. This means that its own people do not get the same level of protection. Each year, in fact, the Health Ministry reports thousands of cases of food-related illness.

And, in 2004, there was a tragedy when a company ripped off parents by selling infant formula with little or no nutritional value, resulting in the deaths of at least 12 infants and the severe malnutrition of hundreds more babies.

Frank Ching is a Hong-Kong based commentator. 

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