Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

China’s Food Safety Issues Worse Than You Thought

Opinion

(Nancy Huehnergarth is a national food policy activist, journalist, coalition leader and president of Nancy F. Huehnergarth Consulting. Follow her on Twitter. A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Hill.)

In April, I began an email correspondence with an American I’ll call Susan (she prefers to remain anonymous), who has lived in China for 15 years while working in publishing. She currently resides in Beijing and also lived in a small town in Hubei province.

Susan came across our Change.org petition (325,000-plus signatures) asking Congress to “Keep Chinese Chicken Out of Our Schools and Supermarkets” and reached out to me. While she loves China and its people, Susan’s first-hand knowledge of China’s poor food safety practices leaves her deeply concerned about the prospect of American chicken being processed in China for consumption in the U.S.

To provide consumers with even more information about how a weak Chinese food safety system poses a real threat to Americans, I have compiled a Q&A excerpt from my often-startling correspondence with Susan.

Why do you think China suffers from such spectacular food safety problems?

Food safety has always been an issue (in China) due to lack of knowledge about contamination and hygiene standards. Even in Beijing I can count on contracting food poisoning at least once a year, despite all my precautions. The problem is, buying anything here that is processed becomes a roll of the dice.

Most Chinese believe the food safety system is thoroughly corrupt. Although there are protests, in general people say, “Mei ban fa,” or, “Nothing can be done.” This is the traditional Confucian attitude that teaches one to bend like a reed in the wind — never stand against it like a tree.

I do know that almost everyone here believes that government officials have their own private farms to assure that their personal food supply is safe. People also widely believe that the government lies about its results in food testing to avoid panic and protest.

Who staffs China’s food processing facilities?

Chinese food processing plants are staffed by workers with little education — the people who are willing to work for the kind of low wages that make it possible to process U.S. chickens in Chinese plants and export them back to America cost effectively. Unfortunately, these mostly rural workers have limited knowledge of hygiene and sanitation.

In the first few years of my life here, I spent time in different cities and towns, including Shanghai, Shijiazhuang, Qingdao, Qinhuangdao, Shenyang, Harbin, Dalian, Changchun, Yichang, Yidu, Wuhan, Xi’an, Yichun, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Ganzhou. I discovered that the vast majority of people are not yet familiar with the concept of a germ, virus or bacteria, or basic hygiene practices such as hand washing or avoiding cross-contamination of food.

What about large multinational food corporations operating in China? Don’t they have sanitation and food safety standards equivalent to those in the United States?

I don’t think so. Shuanghui International, China’s biggest meat products company (which purchased Smithfield Foods last year for $4.7 billion), has been plagued by constant reports here in this country of meat infested with maggots, customers succumbing to food poisoning, and random testing that shows illegal levels of bacteria and illegal additives such as clenbuterol in their meat. Negative Chinese articles about Shuanghui were pulled off the web in advance of the Smithfield purchase, but you can still read about the problems here.

Are Chinese citizens fully aware of food safety problems in their country? How do they deal with them?

The residents of Beijing are well aware of (food safety) problems. I can think of four ways in particular that their concern has become evident in recent years.

The first is the proliferation and patronage of foreign import food stores. When I first came to mainland China, there was one such store in Beijing, little more than a hole in the wall, which catered entirely to the foreign population. Today that original shop has eight locations in the city. There are now four competing chains as well, and most have numerous full-sized grocery stores. Even as recently as five years ago, the vast majority of patrons were still foreigners. However, today these stores are filled with Chinese patrons, even though the product markup can often be 100 percent or more above what those items would cost back home.

The second change has been in behavior when eating out. Anyone who can afford it avoids street food and cheaper restaurants, which are notorious for their poor quality. Food consequently often takes up to 50 percent of the average person’s monthly budget. Food poisoning is extremely common, and the rates of cancer in China are rising. I know personally three people under the age of 40 with liver or kidney failure. Gastrointestinal cancer is one of the most common cancers in China. People largely view this as unavoidable and a consequence of dirty food.

The third piece of evidence is that Hong Kong and other countries are restricting the amount of baby formula Chinese citizens can purchase or carry out of the country. These laws were necessary because the Chinese were going abroad in droves and buying up all the baby formula.

The final change has been the proliferation of balcony gardens. Anyone who has room in Beijing tries to turn their apartment balcony into a small garden since vegetables are among the foods most likely to make one ill.

How do you personally deal with rampant food safety issues in China?

I keep an eye on both the official government reports and as much independent media as I am able to access. I am very interested for my own personal health, as well as for the sake of my friends here. Since my roommate (also American) and I started eating only imported food, our health has improved dramatically. In particular, my roommate’s constant skin allergies and rashes have died down. We eat food from China only when out with friends — which we keep to once or twice a month. Most of the time we encourage our friends to come to our home for a meal instead. Whenever we eat out, we can tell. We generally both get headaches and often have digestive problems, and my roommate invariably breaks out in a rash within 24 hours. If we are able to find a restaurant where this does NOT happen, we keep going there until it does.

Is it possible to purchase organic produce in China?

Although “organic” vegetables are available here (little fruit), there are two serious problems with that. The first is that even government spot testing admits that approximately 30 percent of food labeled “organic” does not pass basic tests for pollutants and chemicals. Like most people, if they will admit to as high as 30 percent, I suspect the real number is closer to 60 percent. Greenpeace recently reported that upon asking Chinese organic farmers what “organic” meant, many of them answered: “I grow it by myself.”

Why do you think many farmers in China use unsafe chemicals on the food they grow?

The government limits the profit farmers can make off their goods in order to control inflation. As a result, many farmers have a hard time making ends meet, so they seek ways to improve per acre yields via chemicals. It is well-known (and feared) in the cities that farmers set aside a plot for their own personal use upon which these chemicals are never used. But plots that are growing produce to be sold are highly contaminated to make them profitable. Hence we have issues like last year’s exploding watermelons. An unknown chemical was added to watermelons to make them grow faster and bigger, with the unexpected result that they exploded in the fields.

What do you hear about soil and water contamination in China with regard to the food supply?

The soil and water are both widely and terribly contaminated. The soil study (the government) finished in 2010 had been locked away as a state secret until recently when they admitted that 20 percent of the nation’s farmland is contaminated — a figure that most who live here would suspect to be low as well as out of date. As to the water, I’ve read that the groundwater of 90 percent of our cities is contaminated to some degree while 64 percent of the groundwater in our cities is severely polluted. Unfortunately, all pollution numbers are ultimately educated guesses since the government tightly controls all such information.

No one I know drinks tap water. Everyone, including the poor, drinks bottled water. I personally have an Aquasana water filtration system — one for drinking and a separate one for the shower — which renders the water clean enough to bathe in but still not what one would want for drinking. When I first came here, it was common for hotels to put a large thermos of boiled water in each room. Restaurants also served boiled water, and many people drank tap water that had been boiled. This is no longer the case.

Can you believe there is fake bottled water? I switched to water filtration because government testing showed that 60 percent of bottled water was “fake,” e.g., bottles had been simply refilled with tap water and sold.

Are there any big food scandals going on right now in China?

Now we’re struggling with the issue of fake eggs. They are nearly impossible to distinguish before buying and far cheaper to make than real eggs are to lay. Fake honey is also a problem. Testing revealed that 60 percent of the honey sold in stores is not honey at all, merely colored glucose water. Of course, fake honey from China has been found in France and the U.S. as well.

Based on your personal experiences and research, do you think it’s safe to process American raised chickens in China?

I was horrified to learn that any food from America might come here to be processed. In my opinion, it will certainly return contaminated — even if nothing is added to it. There is no guarantee that the food will be kept at the proper temperature here, or that anyone involved will ensure the sanitation standards needed.

What’s a good resource to learn about Chinese food safety scandals?

The website “Throw it Out the Window” is a Chinese student’s compilation of all food scandal reports and articles that come out here every month. Running it through Google Translate will help you keep up with our food safety issues.

© Food Safety News
  • Keith Warriner

    Talking of food safety standards in China is a bit like throwing stones in a greenhouse. It is true that China have a long way to go with regards to introducing the food safety regulatory system we have here in North America. Yet, the important difference in China is that everything is cooked and eaten rather than RTE with extended shelf-life. Therefore trying to compare China vs US food safety system is not appropriate. There are always those that knowingly break food safety laws but this is certainly not restricted to Chinese.

    • Cam Aujuard, REHS

      Dude….What do you mean it’s “not appropriate” to compare China’s food safety system to America’s ? Even cooking food at the wrong temperature (eg: Chicken at 135 degree’s, or eggs at 95-100) would still increase ones chances of getting sick. You need the proper temperatures as per “food stuff” (Wild game meat @ 155-160, Chicken @ 165-168, and eggs @ 135-140, etc.. to effectively kill the bacteria that is endemic to that food item. It’s the “lethality factor” dude that matters, and that / those factor(s) are / is “time and temperature”. And if the Chinese during the processing of particular food stuffs are not processing these foods within the appropriate manufacturing processes, then yes you can expect people to get ill. “WE” here in America “HAVE” a regulatory system in place that goes through routine updates and changes all the time (review http://www.fda.gov, http://www.usdafsis.gov, usdc-nmfssip.gov, etc..), due to new technologies and discoveries within the food safety arena. “THAT” in it self is the only reason why it would be wrong….totally wrong in order for one to compare the Chinese food safety system to America’s……..they don’t have one, and we do.

      • overseaschinese

        Only because we are culturally-led rather than legislatively-led. In other words, we take care of one another, while the US citizens requires the government to educate you guys. Try to understand the socio-cultural aspects before speaking down a different nation.

        If US’ food safety system is so strong and good, you guys wouldn’t have food safety issues (which is untrue) and wouldn’t have banned imports by the EU.

        • Oginikwe

          Don’t kid yourself–all countries are the same and that’s “money-led.” Your culture of graft and corruption is no better than anyone else’s.

          • overseaschinese

            Obviously you have never lived in Asia.

          • Oginikwe

            Asia’s a big continent; it’s not just China.
            BTW:

            Who can forget thousands of pigs floating in the river only to
            be followed by ducks: 1,000 Dead Ducks Found In China’s Nanhe River; Pig
            Carcass

            Count Continues To Rise (Huff Po) 3/26/2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/

            Food Safety in China, and the Risk to the U.S. (Food Safety) 8/31/2011:
            http://www.foodsafetynews.com/

            Bright Dairy & Foods recalls milk after lye contamination
            (Dairy Reporter) 6/28/2012: http://www.dairyreporter.com/O

            Half of China’s Antibiotics Now Go to Livestock (Mother Jones)
            9/10/2013: http://www.motherjones.com/tom

            You Don’t Know Where Your Drugs Come From And Neither Does The
            FDA; U.S. Imports 90 Percent Of Its Antibiotics (And Vitamin A) From China
            (Manufacturing & Technology News) 5/18/2010: http://www.manufacturingnews.c

            The recipe of China’s food safety crisis (Peoples Daily Online)
            5/10/2011: http://english.peopledaily.com

            Rat tartare: http://www.medicaldaily.com/ra

    • Oginikwe

      “Yet, the important difference in China is that everything is cooked and eaten rather than RTE with extended shelf-life”

      If that were the only food issue with China we wouldn’t be reading this article. Far too many ingredients in our RTE foodstuffs come from China which is how melamine came to be in our pet foods. Almost all of our ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) now comes from China as does many other additives. Adding chicken to the list is just stupid and will prove dangerous. For the record, we avoid all imported fresh vegetables and fruits after pears from Peru sent our six-year-old to the emergency room and layered our mouths with canker sores. We buy our orange juice from a Florida co-op because other countries spray their trees with DDT. So, problems in the food chain are not restricted to China (China has banned food from the U.S. as well); it is a problem due only to globalization.

  • Joe Blow

    Well this is just downright frightening.

  • yiyi

    How do you know if a chicken (or other meat) has being processed in China, especially now that Smithfield belong to a Chinese corporation ?

    • HydrogenBond

      Maybe they will be subject to “country of origin labeling” laws?

      • Nancy Huehnergarth

        Any chicken processed in China that is exported to the U.S. will be subject to COOL and will be labeled as coming from China. However, if that processed chicken is processed again in the U.S. (e.g. added to soup, ravioli, chicken nuggets, frozen meals, etc.) the end product will not be labeled with country of origin. So you will not know if processed food you purchase contains chicken that was processed in China.

        • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

          The USDA basically follows meat in the US, even as it gets processed into soup. That’s one of the issues associated with Vermont’s GMO law–the soup conundrum and USDA’s more stringent labeling laws.

          How would this work with chicken processed in China, but imported to the US and used in further processed foods, such as the soup? Would the food receive the same level of scrutiny as meat processed in the US?

  • George Tong

    I am afraid this article was rather simplistic and misses a lot of major issues. China has a lot of food safety laws in the book but is not enforced evenly. Unlike our FDA which prioritize enforcement base on risk level, China is based on who you know. Secondly, it’s not the processors that are the culprit. It’s the raw material suppliers. Most processors have good defined plans. But if you don’t know if your input is clean and wholesome, what do you do? Since there are thousands of small farms in China and unscrupulous middlemen, does every processor have the resource to run test on all of their input? Lastly, in China, if something was sold that was contaminated or adulterated, it is the retailers that must bear all liabilities. Now, why would anyone upstream bother to make sure their side is clean? This is even more so when the enforcement on retail level is focused mostly on foreign companies such as Wal-Mart and SOE’s are off limits.

  • fistfullofdollars

    History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. In mining towns in the southwest United States, between 1900 and 1950, water quality was visibly bad. Expectant mothers would responsibly subscribe to bottled water deliveries to their homes (five gallon glass bottles). Trouble was, the closest clean water was too expensive to transport to the middle of nowhere, so the big bottles were filled at the mine.

    A whole generation of kids in those towns have mineralized teeth to show for it.

    Humans, when full of themselves, default to the Titanic school of management; have we hit anything yet? No? Then keep going full speed ahead.

  • pawpaw

    Recall Walmart in China recalled donkey meat, after testing revealed it contained fox. And I recall rat being labeled as lamb. In Europe, horse meat and pork showed up in ‘beef’ products. So if we send chicken over there, will be interesting to see what comes back. Efficiency of the global marketplace; for it’s all meat!

  • John Munsell

    USDA requires other countries to be “equal to” American standards. Yup, USDA has acknowledged that China’s food system is “equal to” America’s system. Bottom line: unfettered, seamless global trade is the common goal for all multinational food companies, which have successfully pressured gov entities to comply with this goal. I’d like to know when any food emanates from China (to avoid it), but labeling food with country of origin is about to be outlawed again. We’re all equal, you know. We can’t discriminate. John Munsell

  • overseaschinese

    No one is blaming the corporates who only pays peanuts to the workers? We all know that any form of advancement and increase in controls and checks means higher cost higher prices. If the importers of chicken meat is UNWILLING to pay for a higher prices, then your WALMARTs will not want to buy in for consumers like you.

    If it’s really true food safety is a serious issue, we would be hearing reports of millions of people dying every week, if not months, in China.

    Please, look at the buyer’s prospective from the entire supply chain.

    Even in Europe, they allow China to process raw meat and vegetables, yet, they have insignificant issues. The world’s largest manufacturer of food ingredients and pharmaceutical ingredients are also in China, yet have insignificant issues. Don’t be fooled.

    • Oginikwe

      If China had a free press, we might believe you. Meanwhile:

      Chinese Strawberries Sickened Thousands of German Students (Food Safety News) 10/9/2012: http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/10/german-students-got-sick-on-chinese-strawberries/

      • overseaschinese

        And you believe everything you hear in the US? Don’t be delusional.

        I’d be more worried about the egg production in the US than strawberries.

        • Oginikwe

          Exactly. None of our food problems in either country is solved by globalization. Each country should feed its own and trade the excess. Just say no to imported food.

          • overseaschinese

            Exactly. Say yes to subsistence farming and go back to the old days where we eat what we grow and when we grow!

  • Robert_Cratchit

    Nice to know that totalitarian authoritarian Chinese capitalism works even better at unleashing the competitive spirit than free enterprise totalitarian authoritarian capitalism in America. The sooner we both capture and sequester whistleblowers and weaklings who can’t process industrial effluent as food or complain about where their protein units come from, the better off our wealthy elites will be!

  • Shen

    You should have been dead for many years. You should not live in China anymore since you found so many food threats. Go back to your hometown to make you safe and healthy.

  • Oginikwe

    Acquaint yourself with the psychology term “projection.” And the minute you stoop to ad hominem attacks, you’ve shown your real agenda which is not real discussion but just propaganda. Which fits considering.

    BTW:
    ‘Organic’ From China Exposed: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/260264-organic-from-china-exposed/?photo=2

    Organ Harvesting in China: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/558858-china-transplant-official-backtracks-on-prisoner-organs/

    China’s Great Uprooting (NYT) 6/15/2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/world/asia/chinas-great-uprooting-moving-250-million-into-cities.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Villagers Protest Land Grabs by Officials in South China: http://admin3.theepochtimes.com/n3/54321-villagers-protest-land-grabs-by-officials-in-south-china/?photo=2

    No End In Sight To China’s Food Safety Woes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2014/02/05/no-end-in-sight-to-chinas-food-safety-woes/

    So much for “taking care of one another.”

    • overseaschinese

      And those sites you provided aren’t prejudice and propaganda? Please…

      It always goes both ways.

      It’s obvious you haven’t been to China to see and experience the real deal. And to compare a 1.3 billion country with a small 3-400 million is a farce without objective reasoning.

      • Oginikwe

        LOL!!
        The Chinese military needs to train better trolls.

        • overseaschinese

          I can agree to that, because the Western media has a long history in trolling everyone else.

          Unfortunately, facts still show who is growing, improving and changing. And we all know that’s not US or any (Western) EU countries. I guess development did stop for developed countries. ;)

          Now let’s look at the food safety issues that are improved in the US or EU. Hmmm, looks like there isn’t any significant changes. The horsemeat scandal is still happening. The pink slim is still as slimmy as before. No one is caught, no one is persecuted. Only legislative changes to ease the marketing department and legal lawsuits. Yes, good for the people.

          • Oginikwe

            China is eating itself alive but I guess that’s beside the point.
            Free Tibet!

          • overseaschinese

            Tibet is a different topic altogether. If you believe the news you read… ;) and not look at the other side of the coin.

            Do you know that the Tibetans who have fled the country for better living standards are actually living in hypocrisy? They do not want development in their land, yet they are wonderfully enjoying the development in the West – very happy about it indeed. But when the Chinese government develops and builds their land for their benefit, they say no. Hmmm, what’s wrong with this picture. Don’t get me wrong, China is doing a lot to preserve Tibet and also raising their standard of living, yet ensuring the rare earth minerals are not scavenged by the West (by imposing export rules). But what’s the media saying about it?

            So please, to all the readers…look at things at both sides of the story and learn to read Chinese to understand better about what’s going on. Food Safety is a worldwide issue, not a country-specific issue. Not only do consumers play an important role in the food chain, but also retailers, markets, manufacturers (at all levels), farmers and most importantly, the individuals who run the day to day business and managers who take decisions. If we talk and not walk the talk, it’s dead-end for all of us; in the end, it’s the rich who can afford the best food quality while we suffer the cheaper (more prone to food issues) products.

          • Oginikwe

            Such propaganda you believe in. One misstep and you will wind up in the government prison you disavow. Maybe then your eyes will open.

          • overseaschinese

            That same statement can also apply to you. ;)

            More so if you didn’t even know about the things I mentioned. Just means you weren’t informed on both sides of the coin.

            I’d be more concern about Guantánamo Bay.

            It’s funny how you believe that I’m a Chinese national, which I’m not.

          • Oginikwe

            Uh, oh! There’s trouble in paradise.
            (That didn’t take long . . .)

            http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/21/mcdonalds-rotten-meat-scandal_n_5606588.html