China: Recent Scandals Show Ongoing Battle for Food Safety

A slew of food scandals have occurred in China in recent weeks, highlighting the country's ongoing challenge with maintaining levels of food safety.

Most recently, a report on broadcaster CCTV2 revealed that a Shanghai producer of steamed buns (mantou) used dye and excessive amounts of artificial sweetener in the product, and relabelled for sale buns that had already expired and been returned from local supermarkets. Wang Longxing, director of the Shanghai Food Safety Office, has since apologised for the scandal, insisting that supermarkets should also bear some responsibility for failing to check the quality of the buns before selling them.

Poisonous milk, meat, rice, and then?

Also this month, three children have died and 35 others have been hospitalised in the northwestern province of Gansu, after drinking what officials suspect was milk tainted with nitrite, an industrial salt. Chinese state media followed up with news from police that two suspects had intentionally poisoned the milk out of anger against the farmer who had produced it.

In March, pork from a subsidiary of China’s largest meat processor, Shuanghui Group in Henan, was found to contain an illegal additive, clenbuterol, used to produce lean meat. Authorities in the province responded by taking 72 people associated with producing, using or selling the additive into custody, closing 16 pig farms and seizing 134 tonnes of pork products. China's Ministry of Agriculture also pledged that the government would launch a one-year crackdown on the use of illegal additives in pig feed.

Rice is the major food source in China. Photo by Flickr user Herr_Bert (CC BY-SA 2.0)

China's rice sector has also faced controversy, with various reports highlighting that as much as 10% of the country's rice is tainted with heavy metals. In southern China in particular, toxins have been discharged with sewage by mining operations and made their way into rice paddies. A recent expose by Caixin magazine revealed:

Much of the toxic rice is consumed by farm families who can't afford the “clean” rice sold in markets. But some rice laced with heavy metals also slips through safety checks and is sold on the general market, experts say, sometimes to consumers in China's wealthiest cities.

Unsolved melamine milk scandal

Such potentially fatal episodes are not new. Perhaps the most notable scandal came in 2008, when six children died and nearly 300,000 fell ill from powdered milk laced with melamine. An industrial chemical, when added to watered-down milk it can boost readings of protein levels, but also causes kidney stones in infants. The episode prompted Chinese authorities to tighten the regulation of food safety, with the country's first Food Safety Law taking effect in June 2009. (Incidentally, China's top legislator yesterday called for a more in-depth and comprehensive enforcement of the legislation).

Responding to the scandal was Zhao Lianhai (@zhaolianhai), whose son fell ill from the tainted milk. He set up a website for other affected parents to exchange details on how to sue the companies involved, and was in 2010 sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “disturbing social order” as a result of his activism. He was released on medical parole in December of the same year.

In a recent YouTube clip in which he calls for the release of detained artist Ai Weiwei and other victims of China's recent crackdown on potential dissent, Zhao alludes to the 2008 scandal:

It seems that many children have been unable to receive timely treatment, including some children whose cases have become more serious. Local governments, and relevant departments included, have simply turned their backs. We hope first of all from a humanitarian viewpoint, from the most basic consideration of our children, that some practical things be urgently done. I’m sure that all parents will have an attitude of tolerance in looking at the tragedies that befell each of our families. In this age of hours, we can withstand a measure of grievance. But we hope that all of the ills we bear can bring more goodness for this country of ours, creating a better social environment for those who come after us. In that society, all of our generations will live in security.

Netizens’ comments

ChinaGeeks last week selected and translated a handful of netizens’ recent comments on Sina Weibo [zh], China's domestic version of Twitter. Among them:

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 […] 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.

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?

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.

Blogger Jiangminct, meanwhile, responded to the discovery of mercury in Coilia Ecetenes Jordan, a rare and expensive fresh water fish in the Yangtze river. Fish dealers had injected mercury [zh] to increase the weight of the fish and make it look fresher.



Our people, flowers of our motherland, you are lucky to have dyed bun, heavy metal rice, at least they would not take away your lives. See, after all these years, you don't have cancer, no diarrhea. Your body is still in good shape. This is proof. Don't you complain, you should be thankful to the dyed bun manufacturers, they are so kind not to add mercury, just a little bid of chemical dye. They are people with a very good conscience. […]

I don't want to comment on the role of food monitoring department, this is such a tiring subject. There is no use commenting, news about food security keeps popping up. Why? The reason cannot be spelled out, but I am sure you know. In a nutshell, you cannot believe in anyone except yourself. In this amazing country, we don't have the most poisonous food, but always the more poisonous one.

Western and expat bloggers have largely remained unsurprised, but wonder for how long such scandals will continue before effective government regulation is enforced.

Chinese quote translated by Oiwan Lam.


  • Food in China is a very delicate issue. One of the most famous greetings that Chinese people say to each other when they meet is “Have you eaten?”. That is rooted in very difficult times when food was scarce.

    As population is growing, China is facing difficult challenges in meeting all of the hunger needs of people – especially as China is growing economically, and people demand to eat better food. Food safety should be a top priority for the government.

  • […] Asia”, this coming from the country that evicts and kills people, Clenbuterol, dyed buns, child beggars and other harmonious incidents have kept the air putrid hear…meanwhile […]

  • Kimi B

    This is the produce for domestic comsumption. What about the products being dumped on third world nations? In the global race to become first in competitiveness, choice and price, one only hopes that China will consider trying to catch up with quality. Something to think about when next you visit an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet…what is that gooey, sweet, colourful ‘stuff’! Can you even read the contents on the tins and packages?

  • […] Nahrungsmittelsicherheit bleibt ebenfalls ein ungelöstes Problem. Während des ganzen Jahres gab es immer wieder Skandale um vergiftete Milch. Festlandchinesen überquerten die Grenze, um Milchpulver zu kaufen, was zu einem Engpass in Hongkong führte. Als Japan einer nuklearen Strahlungskrise ins Auge sah, war die erste Reaktion der Chinesen der Panikkauf von Meersalz.  Die Auswirkungen der Strahlung sind jedoch wahrscheinlich geringer als die der Chemikalien, die in Wassermelonen and Essig gefunden wurden. […]

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