Netizens on Food Safety

Tainted milk. Poisoned milk. Radioactive spinach ((Which, actually is safe to eat, but still…)). Contaminated mantou. Fake wine. Additive-addled pork. Genetically-terrifying strawberries ((I saw a report on this on CCTV a month or so ago that has put me off the things entirely, but I can’t seem to find a link now.)). Heavy-metal rice. And most of that just in the past few weeks. It seems that even as food prices continue to rise, the quality is going down the tubes. Or at least, we’re finally learning what kind of food we’re paying so much money for. In the wake of today’s news about the contaminated mantou (steamed buns) and the ongoing story of the poisoned milk in Gansu, here are some selected ((Yes, I selected them. No, they’re probably not representative of the entirety of China. That said, I chose them more or less randomly, and translated every single one that I read save really short or repetitive ones, and one which contained some really poetic language I had no idea how to translate.)) netizen comments on food in China.

It’s worth noting these comments are all from Sina Weibo, not Twitter, which means they’re accessible within China, and that the harsher comments may have been deleted by Sina’s censors.

Comments

“After the [poisoned milk], there came mantou and bread [contamination]…how am I supposed to buy food after this?” ((It’s worth noting that there are tons of comments like this; I’ve just translated this one to represent them, but I came across a lot more.))

“Even little children know that food has an expiration date, do they really mean to suggest that law enforcement officials [responsible for inspecting the food safety at these factories] didn’t discover [that expired mantou was being used to make more mantou]? That’s impossible! “

“Barf!”

“There’s no big scandal here, don’t be alarmist. Isn’t this just inserting some dye for color? Isn’t it just putting expired mantou back to work? What is that, it’s no big deal…As a great Chinese citizen, as the descendants of Yan Di and Huang Di, as the Chinese who have successfully made it to this point, you’re not even willing to eat this, and you’re not ashamed?”

“Take the people from the [relevant] government department out and shoot them. Why is it always the media that discovers this stuff first?”

“Any food may have something added to it, so why aren’t the higher-level leaders nervous? They think that of course the common people must eat from the same special, environmentally protected stock that they do. From Sanlu ((The guys who brought you melamine-milk)) to Shuanghui ((The guys who brought you pork with illegal additives)) to mantou ((There is a clever play on words in the Chinese text here, but I can’t think of a good way to translate the joke into English)), what high-level official has been investigated or forced to resign? The common people are forced to determine for themselves whether even basic foods and drinks are poisoned or not. Leaders of the food safety [department], have you no sense of shame? If those food inspection officials who shirked their duty aren’t executed, the problem of contaminated food will never disappear.”

“If sea cucumber or abalone was contaminated, that would be one thing; you could just not eat it. But if even bread and steamed buns have problems, what can we do? Actually, we’re a little strong; even in this kind of environment we can subsist. We have nothing to fear from 2012, whatever happens, it won’t be any worse than things are now.”

“[It turns out that] at the apocalypse, it is humans who will destroy themselves.”

“China itself is a society of mutual poisoning, a society of mutual pain-infliction. You add some [poison] to the milk, I put sweet additives into expired mantou, he puts additives into the food he feeds his pigs, oil, crab, rice, duck eggs…even if the milk manufacturers don’t drink milk, they eat mantou. Even if the mantou makers don’t eat mantou, they eat pork. Even if the pork farmers don’t eat pork, they drink milk. In the end, we’re just hurting ourselves. The nation is in peril, inviting ridicule and shame. “

“[With regards to the mantou contamination], I feel this is abnormal, [but] but it reflects a normal phenomenon in the Chinese food industry. The moral logic in the Chinese food industry is that as long as the consumer doesn’t immediately die of the poison, it’s acceptable to pursue the maximization of material gains by any and all means available. [Past examples of this] seem to include: pickled veggies, chicken feet, salted meat, sausages, dumplings, milk powder…”

Conclusion

There really are virtually no positive comments about this — unsurprisingly, people don’t like eating expired garbage or drinking poison — but even I was surprised by some of the really harsh ones. I’m not sure food in China is any less safe today than it was five years ago; in fact, if anything, I’m inclined to suspect it’s actually safer. But the fact that we’re hearing about it (CCTV is obviously on the hunt, and good on ’em for it!) and the confidence in the government (which seems to be low and ever-dropping) have combined to create a food consumer market that views everything they hear with skepticism. So far, it’s led to mostly angry microblog posts and a run on iodized salt (even though it’s totally useless and the government had been saying that). Clearly, it’s a contentious issue, though, and if these scandals keep popping up, one wonders if the government will consider picking a high-level sacrificial lamb or two to take the fall.

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0 thoughts on “Netizens on Food Safety”

  1. C Custer,

    It think China is taking food safety seriously. While there’s a systematic failures in the tainted milk failures in 2008, it didn’t happen this time. This tainted milk producer is a local producer where some people who have an axe to grind with a milk producer intentionally tainted the milk.

    http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/xinhua/2011-04-12/content_2281393.html

    When I buy a loaf of bread from my local store here in the states, how do I know that the government had inspect them? They don’t. I am glad that people are posting pictures and video exposing those people who are intentionally tainting the food supply and they should go to jail. The company who made those tainted steam buns is probably out of business.

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  2. “I’m not sure food in China is any less safe today than it was five years ago; in fact, if anything, I’m inclined to suspect it’s actually safer.”

    I wish I could share your optimism, but the reality is that higher demand is causing shorter supplies and higher prices. With higher prices, there is increased incentive to cut corners in order to maintain or increase margins. Whoever is getting squeezed the most in the supply chain is going to be cutting the most corners.

    If anything, I expect to see even more food scandals in the future.

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  3. J hit the nail on the head exactly. If I recall, food supplied to functions attended by Politburo level types is sourced from special farms with very serious quality control management, in contrast to……

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  4. pug_ster: Yeah, the recent poisoned milk was a case of murder, essentially, rather than a systemic failure. Not so for the (more recent) mantou case, though, which is what most of these comments are about (I think I took one or two from the feed for the milk story, but the rest are all mantou related).

    I’m not sure I see your point about food in the US…food is inspected by the FDA, same way it is in China. The difference appears to be that the FDA does a better job, since food in the US doesn’t tend to be poisonous (at least not in the traditional sense, although most of it is so fattening it might be called a kind of poison…)

    Anyway, I agree it’s good that people — mostly, it seems to be CCTV reports — are looking into this, but I agree with the commenter above that it SHOULDN’T be the media who is always catching these problems. There are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of officials whose job it is to police this industry and ensure food is safe…what the hell are they all doing if CCTV is able to scoop them so constantly on their own turf?

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  5. Generally speaking, when legitimate concerns over food safety arise in the U.S., government (local, state, and federal) does a far better job of informing the public and taking appropriate measures than do the authorities in China. Simply put, no one here (Beijing) trusts that the Chinese government’s recent measures will have any meaningful effect on food safety. It’s well-known here, for example, that farmers in China often refuse to eat the food they produce for sale to people in the cities. A recent essay had this to say on the subject: “[P]roducers are only that: they are producers. They do not consume their own products. Farmers do not eat the vegetables they grow; they are sold to others. Chicken and pig farmers do not eat the meat they produce; they buy more trustworthy products at the market. But what if everyone thought that way? There is a joke about a vegetable farmer and a pig farmer who eat together: the former only eats the pork, the latter prefers to stick to the vegetables. Farmers do not use chemicals and fertilisers on the foods they grow for their own consumption. Farmers would be too ashamed to use their farmed chickens to feed their guests; they only sell those birds to the cities. But if you live in a city, you do not have a choice.”

    The essay goes on to comment about a recent Greenpeace report on food safety in China: “Environmental group Greenpeace recently tested vegetables purchased in supermarkets and markets in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou at a government-authorised independent laboratory in Qingdao. Traces of agricultural chemicals were found in 40 of the 45 samples that were tested, with a total of 50 different chemicals identified – five of which are classified by the World Health Organisation as highly toxic. One strawberry bought at a Beijing Wal-Mart contained 13 different agricultural chemicals. This was not an isolated incident. Beijing Industrial and Commercial Bureau recently found levels of sulphites in seafood products produced by a well-known Hangzhou company that breached safety standards; a substandard batch of products has already been taken off the shelves. According to the National Business Daily, products from another four firms also failed to pass tests due to excessive levels of sulphites, sodium cyclamate, saccharin sodium and benzoic acid.”

    If you live in China, you must eat food produced in China. Like the shitty air, much of that food is bad for your health. It goes well beyond such things as melamine, dehydrolyzed leather protein, and rat poison to include such things as saturated fats, trans fatty acids, etc. — many of which are ingested unknowingly because product labels in China frequently lack such information. New laws and regulations or not, one of this will change anytime soon. If you live in China, learn to cook your own food. And try to eat less.

    The assertion that China lags not so very far behind the U.S. because the U.S. government doesn’t check every loaf of bread at every Whole Foods is too stupid to merit consideration. I’m embarrassed for people who think like this. That food safety issues arise everywhere does not mean that the institutions devised to deal with such problems are equally competent.

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  6. It would be interesting to see how China will deal with public health concerns. In the past, for large cases the government would make an example of the food company executives (I think the CEO of the original tainted milk scandal got life sentence?) while shielding the officials from the Chinese equivalent of FDA. In the US if I remember correctly nothing happened to the executives of the company which made tainted peanut butter, which also killed scores of people. However one would think that after the scandal broke the US FDA would have improved its process. The problem with China is the the system is far more corrupt, so one would expect that the Chinese FDA officials have been bought off. This means that even if the process is improved the effects maybe minimal. Ultimately, to calm the public I expect a medium level official to be punished for corruption.

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  7. The paranoid, conspiracy theorist speck of my brain just lit up: assuming the media regulators are dominated by the far-left, hardline, anti-reformist parts of the CCP, what if the state media has been allowed/encouraged to report on the chaotic mess of the not so state controlled economy to build the case to reverse the economic reforms believing that the good old command economy will work now that there’s more money in the bucket. This would be kind of like reporting on Taiwan and India’s democratic governments and using them as an example to not go to democracy.

    Between the “food safety gets better” and “more demand makes food safety worse”, I like to believe it’s getting better with the media (state controlled and otherwise) doing the work of PRC’s FDA cleaning up the field but it’s probably constant. We just didn’t hear about the old cases and new unexposed incidents will startup and await exposure.

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  8. @ pug_ster : Right, because once you give someone a license to make something, that license magically prevents them from ever making that product with illegal/unhealthy ingredients.

    It’s either that, or that magic doesn’t exist, and so the government should probably do some kind of regular, undercover inspections (hey, if CCTV can pull it off, I’m sure the CCP can) to ensure standards are being met.

    I forget which of those is the case, though 😉

    Obnoxiousness aside — sorry, I just couldn’t resist — I see what you’re saying, and I agree that once the news of the tainted buns got out, the government reaction was quick and more or less appropriate (I am shocked to learn that no food safety officials were arrested, though! ). I think the problem people have with government regulation is that it had nothing to do with this issue being reported. Like most of the recent food safety problems, it was caught by the media, and then the government reacted to that. If the media hadn’t noticed it, we’d all still be eating really gross mantou right now, and that’s the problem. The government reacting to news like this is better than nothing, but it ought to be the government, not the media, that’s actively policing this stuff, sneaking cameras into factories and stuff like that.

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  9. I’m frankly surprised that no one is talking about how much food China exports. This makes it not just an isolated domestic incident, nor does it give much room to talk about how good or bad a job the FDA does. From all that I’ve read they do a far worse job inspecting food for toxic metal contaminants than EU food protection agencies.

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  10. I”m not sure if this will add anything to you all’s discussion but food inspection is a very tedious procedure. Many people involved have very specific duties and don’t necessarily possess all the knowledge regarding their products or the theory behind their work. I’m talking about general information, not just in specific countries.

    In some cases, the specialists (which is what a lot of the people who do the work are called) only take a sample of the products rather than checking individually all of them to test for certain items. I do have to emphasize the its only certain items that the specialists are checking. Putting aside the corruption, cutting corners, criminal intent or red tape issues, there’s also some legal and technical discrepancies to deal with. Some chemicals and ingredients which are questionable to human health are in a lot of foods using different names. The main concern is the level of concentration. There are some loopholes with it. Some issues with food safety have to do with the nature of the industry itself. Directly and indirectly, virtually everything is affected by something with the potential to be harmful.

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  11. Regarding the specialists; back then, such as prior to the 2000’s decade, there were quite a lot of people who manage to get into this field of work without having adequate knowledge. Some never went to any higher education institution (degrees, training certificate, licenses, etc.). Nowadays, the process to obtain such jobs are more stringent. It takes a very long time to get into this career, and once you are in, it will take even longer to move up the ladder.

    I wish I can show it to you all instead of explaining it. Every industry has their own unique culture to deal with, as it is with food and products safety.

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