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More Scares Ahead After China's Rat Meat Scandal


Pedestrians are reflected in the window of a closed shop that sold fake mutton made from rat meat in Shanghai on May 4

Photograph by AFP via Getty Images

Pedestrians are reflected in the window of a closed shop that sold fake mutton made from rat meat in Shanghai on May 4

And you thought Europeans had problems with their horse meat scandals. In China, consumers have to worry about getting served rat meat for dinner.

That’s the latest frightening food-safety scare from China, where the government is determined to show weary Chinese consumers the system can protect them from hazardous products. China’s Ministry of Public Security has rounded up 904 people for “meat-related crimes,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported on May 2. The offenses included selling as mutton meat that really came from rats, foxes, and minks.

You might think China’s state-controlled media would be covering up the embarrassing food scandals, but with so many Chinese taking to social media sites to express their outrage, for now it seems the government has decided the best strategy is to go on offense. That means publicizing some of the many scares that Chinese consumers have suffered since 2008, when the issue became front-page news after melamine-tainted infant formula killed at least six Chinese children and sickened 300,000 others.

Consider this litany from Xinhua: “Pork adulterated with clenbuterol, cooking oil recycled from leftovers in restaurant kitchens, pork from diseased pigs and toxic gelatin for medicine capsule production have all been found by police in recent years, with the latest case involving making fake mutton and beef from rat, fox and mink by adding chemicals.”

Not to worry, though. The government is addressing the problem, the official China Daily newspaper reports; indeed, one reason we’re hearing about so many food-safety scandals is because vigilant authorities are uncovering more of them. “The number of lawsuits over food safety cases has grown rapidly in the past three years,” the newspaper reported today. From 2010 to 2012, courts have sentenced more than 2,000 people in criminal cases related to the production and sale of uncertified food. It’s unclear how that compares to earlier years but Xinhua reports “the number of such cases grew exponentially in the three years.”

The government has also overhauled the bureaucracy to create a new superministry, the General Food and Drug Administration, to ensure the quality of China’s food and drugs. Last month, China unveiled a program to crack down further, including promises to address safety hazards in the agricultural supply chain. In what is likely a sign of how concerned China’s new leaders, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, are about the impact endless food-safety scares have on public perception of the Communist government’s competence, the news came from the highest level of the government, the State Council—China’s Cabinet. According to China Daily, the State Council pledged to “intensify the crackdown on food-related violations, boost the emergency response mechanism for food safety incidents and release related information to the public in a timely manner.”

Expect to hear more gruesome examples of unscrupulous Chinese food suppliers in the coming months. Having concluded a three-month investigation of China’s meat suppliers, the country’s food cops are now turning to the milchig side of the menu. “The police are now focusing on crimes involving dairy products,” Xinhua reported, citing an unnamed official. “There are some deep-seated food safety problems which have not yet been solved.”

Note that rat meat, when properly disclosed, is not necessarily verboten for all Chinese. For some it’s a delicacy, and in the southern province of Guangdong, adjacent to Hong Kong, there’s a town famed for its rat restaurants. “The rat dishes are so popular that diners sometimes have to book in advance for a meal in some restaurants during peak hours,” China Daily reported in 2010 from the town of Zhongcun. “Rat meat can be roasted, braised in soy sauce, stewed or cooked in soup.”

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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