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China Plays Down Food Safety Problems

The China Daily is an English language newspaper that is controlled by China’s communist party. So when it runs an article entitled, Quality of China’s Farm Products Improving, it is fair to say that high authorities in China are concerned with world perception of the safety of Chinese food production:

Chinese farm products are getting safer, the government said on Tuesday, citing tests of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish in major cities that showed more than 95 percent of products were up to standard.

The Ministry of Agriculture, eager to reassure consumers following a series of safety scandals, said on its Web site ( that all meat and poultry products tested in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Tianjin and Kunming were up to scratch.

“The proportion of vegetables tested which were up to standard when it came to farm chemical residues in 37 cities was the highest in recent years,” it said in a statement.

“The general quality of agricultural products in our country keeps getting higher,” it added.

The article did note some problems:

Malachite green, a cancer-causing chemical used by fish farmers to kill parasites, was found in some samples, as were nitrofurans, an antibiotic also linked to cancer, the ministry said.

But the world’s attention has fallen to this subject:

“At present, food safety problems have received the world’s attention,” Wei Chuanzhong, deputy head of China’s quality inspection bureau, was quoted as saying on its Web site (

“We pay the highest level of attention to food safety,” he said during a visit to inspection facilities in Shanghai.

The scandals keep occurring, however.

State media said that health authorities had seized more than two tons of expired sticky rice dumplings, a special treat for the annual Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on Tuesday.

A company in central Anhui province had repackaged the dumplings, made two years ago, and sold them as new, Xinhua news agency said.

“Some of the rice inside was rotting and giving off a bad smell,” Xinhua said.

Last year, some manufacturers were found to have used copper-based chemicals to preserve the green colour of leaves used to wrap dumplings, with the worst cases containing 34 times more copper than allowed by national safety standards.

public fears about food safety grew in China in 2004 when at least 13 babies died of malnutrition in Anhui after they were fed fake milk powder with no nutritional value.

Clearly China is concerned that its export growth could be slowed by the bad reputation of the Chinese food industry.

China now is trying to certify product as organic ,and when Wal-Mart began its push for organics, one of the fears expressed by U.S. organic producers was that Wal-Mart would look to China for less expensive organics:

The farmers’ concerns go beyond simply pushing down prices. DeWilde and others fear that companies like Wal-Mart could try to lower the standards for what is classified as organic food and begin to import more supplies from China and other overseas markets. “Wal-Mart already sources a majority of its products from China, because it’s so cheap to produce anything there. Why not foods?” asks Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Assn., a nonprofit organization that promotes natural and organic food.

SHIFTING STANDARDS. The worries that the corporatization of organics could lead to more imports aren’t unfounded. Cummins estimates that already 10% of organic foods like meat and citrus are imported into the U.S. Silk soy milk, for instance, is made from organic soybeans that are bought in China and Brazil, where prices tend to be substantially lower than in the U.S. Cascadian Farms buys its organic fruits and vegetables from China and Mexico, among other countries.

What is unclear is how much control the authorities could assert even if they wanted to. China is very much in its “wild west” stage of capitalism. Corruption is common, and counterfeit labels are a big problem. In fact affluent Chinese are turning to organics in pursuit of food safety but the situation is very confusing:

Yet China’s promotion of organic food has run into problems, not least from a confusion of names, including “non-pollution” food and “green food,” which would not be considered truly organic in the West.

“There are different standards and various organizations, which conduct the certification. Some of the standards can only be applied to the domestic market,” Luo said.

perhaps not surprisingly in a country notorious for pirated handbags, movies and many other products, fake labels have proved to be a headache for organic suppliers.

“Distrust of certification labels is a big problem in the domestic market. People just don’t know what to believe. That’s where things have gotten a little better in the last few years, but that was very difficult early on,” Thiers said.

“For consumers in urban China who are really looking for a way to get around this food safety problem, it’s very difficult to know what to believe, and some kind of certification, even if it doesn’t meet a top-notch organic standard for the world, may be attractive to them as an additional effort at food safety.”

The USDA has not certified any domestic Chinese organizations as certifying agents, so any product that is certified organic had to bring in supervision from outside China. But they are required to do an annual inspection, not provide on-site supervision. Is that sufficient?

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