SHANGHAI — On a bustling corner near downtown Shanghai recently, some shoppers avoided the steamed buns sold by Zhu Qinghe in a street-side cubbyhole. Instead, they bought the packaged buns in the freezer section of Hualian, a supermarket chain store in the same building.
Big mistake: Mr. Zhu’s buns were soft, tasty and fresh, made every day, he said, at 3 a.m. The supermarket’s, on the other hand, came from a filthy workshop where workers “recycled” buns after their sell-by date. The workers merely threw the stale buns into a vat, added water and flour, and repackaged them to be sold anew.
It has been two years since China’s government, reeling from nationwide outrage over melamine-contaminated baby milk that sickened 300,000 infants and killed at least 6, declared food safety a national priority. Since then, it has threatened, raided and arrested throngs of shady food processors — and even executed a couple.
But a stomach-turning string of food-safety scandals this spring, from recycled buns to contaminated pork, makes it clear that official efforts are falling short. Despite efforts to create a modern food-safety regimen, oversight remains utterly haphazard, in the hands of ill-trained, ill-equipped and outnumbered enforcers whose quick fixes are even more quickly undone.
“Most of them are working like headless chickens, having no clue what are the major food-borne diseases that need to be addressed or what are the major contaminants in the food process,” said Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety expert with the World Health Organization’s Beijing office.
In recent weeks, China’s news media have reported sales of pork adulterated with the drug clenbuterol, which can cause heart palpitations; pork sold as beef after it was soaked in borax, a detergent additive; rice contaminated with cadmium, a heavy metal discharged by smelters; arsenic-laced soy sauce; popcorn and mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach; bean sprouts tainted with an animal antibiotic; and wine diluted with sugared water and chemicals.
Even eggs, seemingly sacrosanct in their shells, have turned out not to be eggs at all but man-made concoctions of chemicals, gelatin and paraffin. Instructions can be purchased online, the Chinese media reported.
Scandals are proliferating, in part, because producers operate in a cutthroat environment in which illegal additives are everywhere and cost-effective. Manufacturers calculate correctly that the odds of profiting from unsafe practices far exceed the odds of getting caught, experts say. China’s explosive growth has spawned nearly half a million food producers, the authorities say, and four-fifths of them employ 10 or fewer workers, making oversight difficult.
China’s iron political controls ensure that no powerful consumer lobby exists to agitate for reform, press lawsuits that punish wayward producers or lobby the government to pay as much attention to consumer safety as it does to controlling threats to its own power. Instead, like Alice after falling through the rabbit hole, consumers must guess what their food and drink contain.
“Basically, people now feel nothing is safe to eat,” said Sang Liwei, who directs the Beijing office of the Global Food Safety Forum, a private agency. “They don’t know what choices to make. They are really feeling very helpless.”
Chinese consumers may have their hands tied compared with their Western counterparts, but they are increasingly middle-class, well-educated and dismayed by their lack of protection. Even top officials are discomfited.
“All of these nasty cases of food-safety problems are enough to show that lack of integrity and moral decline have become a very serious problem,” Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told government officials in mid-April, according to The People’s Daily.
“We feel really ashamed,” Vice Premier Wang Qishan said at a meeting in March with legislators, according to Xinhua, the official news agency. “Just when the people have enough to feed themselves, we have this food-safety problem. Really embarrassing, this is really embarrassing for us.”
Some progress is evident. China adopted a far-reaching food-safety law in 2009 and is bringing hundreds of standards in line with international norms. Already, nearly half of dairy food companies have been ordered to halt production after failing to meet new licensing requirements.
“The situation is steadily improving, “ said Luo Yunbo, the dean of the food sciences college at China Agricultural University in Beijing. “It is not as bad as people think it is.”
Nor is it good. The health minister, Chen Zhu, said in February that China did not have enough enforcement agents, with fewer than one food inspector for every 10,000 people. Instead of systematically identifying the safety risks and forcing producers to prove that they have eliminated them, said Dr. Ben Embarek of the World Health Organization, Chinese inspectors follow a long-discredited strategy of randomly sampling and testing products.
Some food is simply unregulated. Pork accounts for two-thirds of the meat eaten by Chinese consumers, but only half of it goes through slaughterhouses that are subject to inspection, he said. The rest comes from pigs slaughtered in backyards, villages or markets and is essentially untested, he said.
Oversight remains shared among disparate bureaucracies: the Commerce Ministry supervises pork slaughterhouses, Dr. Ben Embarek said, but beef and poultry slaughterhouses fall under the Agriculture Ministry.
Even the government’s most dramatic crackdowns have fallen short. After the 2008 milk-powder scandal drew international attention, the authorities ordered all melamine-tainted dairy products to be destroyed. But they have turned up again and again.
Last week, the police in Chongqing in southwestern China uncovered 26 tons of melamine-tainted milk powder at a factory that made ice cream bars, The People’s Daily reported.
Clenbuterol is another recurring problem. According to the Chinese news media, the drug was banned in animal feed nearly a decade ago because it can cause heart palpitations and other health problems in humans.
But experts say it remains widely available. Many farmers continue to feed it to pigs because it helps the animals develop more muscle and less fat and allows them to be sold for slaughter more quickly.
Just last month, the Shuanghui Group, one of China’s largest meat producers, recalled thousands of tons of meat and meat products after news reports that a company affiliate had processed pork from pigs that were fed clenbuterol.
Consumers have also been repeatedly poisoned by excessive levels of the chemical nitrite in meat, Feng Ping, a professor at the Beijing Academy of Food Sciences, told an international food-safety conference last month. The most recent suspected case occurred April 21 when a 1-year-old Beijing girl died after eating fried chicken bought from an outdoor vendor, a local newspaper reported.
How many others fall sick or die from contaminated food is anyone’s guess because data on food-borne diseases is spotty at best. “We operate in the dark in many ways,” Dr. Ben Embarek said.
Consumers are not the only victims. Unscrupulous producers hurt reputable manufacturers. Imported dairy products nearly quintupled in volume in 2009, the year after the melamine scandal, government officials say. Foreign brands now account for half of all infant milk powder sold in China.
Now steamed buns are taking a hit.
“I am no longer eating steamed buns,” a 65-year-old Shanghai man, who gave his last name as Chen, declared in front of a supermarket window emblazoned with the motto “No fake goods in Hualian.”
The supermarket chain and other retailers that have sold the buns have blamed its supplier, the Shanghai Shenglu Food Company. The authorities have revoked the supplier’s license and have arrested five of the firm’s managers, according to Chinese news media reports.
But Mr. Chen is not reassured.
“None of them are reliable,” he spat. “They really have no morals. They will do anything for money.”