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New wave of tainted food in China and how inflation could make it worse

April 28, 2011 |  1:00 am

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Three years after China was rocked by a massive tainted-milk scandal, the country has again been hit by a wave of food scares in recent weeks.

The list includes diseased pigs used for bacon; noodles made of corn, ink and paraffin; rice contaminated with heavy metals, sausages made of rotten meat and fertilizer; and pork described as "Tron blue" because it glowed in the dark from bacteria.

That so many new scandals have emerged even after the central government implemented a sweeping food-safety law in 2009 speaks to the depth of the regulation's ineffectiveness, experts say.

An article Tuesday in the state-owned Global Times said food inspectors could be bribed to ignore diseased pork entering the food chain.

Li Duo, a food-safety and nutrition specialist at Zhejiang University, told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post that enforcement was too limp wristed.

"Officials have always been announcing plans to clamp down on illegal food production activities," Li told the newspaper. "But why have they failed to control it, and why are the scandals appearing so frequently? The main reason is that the punishment is too light for businessmen who break the law and officials guilty of dereliction of duty."

Although China's top leaders have responded with boilerplate promises to crackdown on the abuses, experts say they should consider the effect that inflation is having on food producers.

China's consumer price index hit a 32-month high last month, placing immense pressure on farmers and food makers to pay for costlier raw materials and distribution. Government price controls often mean those increased costs can't be passed on to consumers.

Under these worsening conditions, more may consider cutting corners to recoup costs and stay in business.

"Inflation probably increases the possibility street vendors or farmers sell tainted food or add illegal substances to make more profit or reduce costs," said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "It would make it easier for them."

Yang Guoying, a former general manager of pork-processing companies featured in the Global Times story on diseased swine, likened China's crisis to the one exposed by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 muckraking novel “The Jungle,” which led to an overhaul of the American meatpacking industry.

"I don't think this has anything to do with moral bankruptcy," Yang said in an interview. "The U.S. went through this 100 years ago. Taiwan went through it a few decades ago. This is about the market we're living in. It's about people trying to make money and trying to survive."

-- David Pierson

Photo: A member of the Shenyang, China, police force throws out deteriorated chicken during a public campaign to destroy substandard food. Credit: EPA

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