It was a simple demonstration of a serious problem. At China’s National People’s Congress on March 6, a delegate from Zhejiang took out some dark peanuts, prized for their rich flavor, and dropped them in a glass of clear water. The water immediately turned black from the chemical dye coating the nuts. “This is not a show. I want people to see how these toxic additives are proliferating and harmful,” said Zhu Zhangjin, who brought more than 300 different samples of doctored food products to Beijing, according to the Qianjiang Evening News, a daily, on March 7.
Following earlier scares over melamine-laced milk powder, exploding watermelons, and pesticide-soaked vegetables, food safety is again on the minds of the Chinese. After the state broadcaster revealed late last year that some KFC chicken contained excessive levels of antibiotics, consumers deserted the once-popular fast-food chain. Sales fell 20 percent at the Louisville-based company’s 5,200 restaurants in China in 2013, parent Yum! Brands (YUM) said on March 11. The company, which gets about half its revenue from China, has launched a campaign to reassure consumers about the safety of its menu.
So-called gutter, or reused, cooking oil has surfaced once more as a major problem in China’s restaurants. A Shanghai hot pot restaurant owner was sentenced to 3½ years in jail earlier this month for using potentially toxic recycled oil. In January, China said it would offer whistle-blowers rewards of as much as 300,000 yuan ($48,221), for tips on food and drug safety problems. Chinese media are reporting that thousands of dead pigs have been found floating in a river supplying water to the city of Shanghai, raising fears of contamination. (Shanghai authorities say city water quality has not been affected, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.)
On March 10, the Chinese government announced it will create a new superministry to ensure the quality of China’s food and drugs. The General Food and Drug Administration will assume responsibility for setting standards and monitoring production, distribution, and consumption—tasks previously handled by as many as nine different government organizations. “The restructuring will better facilitate the enforcement of the food safety laws and regulations, and improve the safety of the nation’s food and drugs,” said Chen Xiaohong, a vice minister of health, the official English-language China Daily reported.
China is home to an estimated 200 million families that farm, each cultivating an average plot of 1.5 acres, as well as a half-million food processing companies, most with fewer than 10 employees. The small scale of most agriculture and food processing means the owners have limited resources to invest in the advanced techniques that could ensure better quality. “One of the challenges here in China is just the sheer volume of what’s here,” says Christopher Hickey. He runs a 13-person branch in China of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has inspected products bound for the U.S. since the office opened in late 2008.
China is trying to encourage bigger operations, particularly in agriculture. The country “will grant more subsidies to large-scale landholders, family farms, and rural cooperatives,” reported CCTV.com, the website of the state broadcaster, on Feb. 1. “The government thinks this is a way to solve the problem of food safety—have big companies producing—which gives it more control over the food system,” says Zhou Li, a professor at the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
Nestlé China deploys 65 employees full time to audit its Chinese suppliers. The Swiss food giant is also investing 150 million yuan ($24 million) in a dairy farming institute to bring advisers on cow breeding, feeding, and health to work with Nestlé’s best suppliers, says Martial Genthon, senior vice president in charge of quality inspection, regulatory issues, and manufacturing. The aim: to consolidate its milk purchases within five years from 20,000 Chinese suppliers with an average 15 cows apiece, to several thousand suppliers with at least 200 cows each.
Despite the efforts, concerns are growing among ordinary Chinese. A survey by the Pew Research Center released last year showed that 41 percent of Chinese believe food safety is a very big problem, up from 12 percent four years earlier, a larger increase than for any other major worry, including corruption and air pollution. Bloggers write regularly about the latest food scandal, and a popular free iPhone app called China Survival Guide has detailed daily food and drug safety problems since last year.
“Of course, it’s a very important issue. Every person in China may have been a victim,” says 27-year-old Wu Heng, who’s launched a website and database, updated daily by a team of 33 volunteers, that details food safety problems. The site gets about 10,000 hits a day. Wu says he’s skeptical that the new ministry will make a difference, citing the limited progress following earlier government efforts. “Chinese people all have breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. But they still don’t have any faith in the safety of the food they eat.”