Jan 2, 2013

Singapore - CHINA FOOD SAFETY: From bad eggs to foul fowl

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What used to be finger-lickin' good chicken for Chun Qing, 41, is now yet another food item to shun.

Her newfound fear over KFC meals was sparked by news last month of poultry farms in northern China - including one that supplied meat to the global fast-food chain - stuffing their birds with antibiotics and growth hormones.

Two farms breeding these "fast-growth chickens" - that go from eggs to ready-to-eat meat in 45 days - were shut down last month.

"I've stopped eating chicken produced in industrial farms. Occasionally, to satisfy my cravings, I'll eat chicken bred in my family's village home," said Chun, a freelance writer living in Beijing.

The KFC saga, which has dented the fast-food chain's business, is among several food scares to have hit China last year. Other cases include chemical-laden liquor and toxic medicinal pills.

No deaths or mass poisoning cases have been directly linked to the latest bout of food scandals, unlike the melamine-tainted milk crisis in 2008 that killed six infants and sickened some 300,000. But they have nonetheless heightened public jitters.

"This unending stream of food scandals is plunging the Chinese people into 'deep water and fire'... We may all collapse one day from the food we eat," lamented one netizen, Wen Nuan, on the Sina Weibo microblog site.

Eager to appease an increasingly vocal and demanding public, the Chinese authorities have pledged tougher action.

Shanghai and Beijing last week announced new measures to blacklist companies violating food safety laws, news agency Xinhua reported. The planned laws, which will be released this year, will block companies caught using banned substances in food or illegally producing and selling banned food additives from operating in the two cities.

Other cities may follow suit as the central government has set a five-year action plan to crack down on food scandals, a major step forward to clear China's alarmingly poor food safety track record, analysts point out.

"This year (2012), the government has taken many measures to ensure food safety. The magnitude of its policies is also greater than that in the past," said China Agricultural University Professor Luo Junbo.

Still, Chun is not assured.

She said: "I don't have confidence that the government can control the problem. The leaders eat special supplies of fresh, organic food, so they don't understand the ordinary folk's suffering."

She is not alone. Almost 30 per cent of netizens polled by Shanghai news portal East Day last week said they would no longer eat fast-food chicken.

Others simply shrugged it off.

Almost 25 per cent polled felt that "Chinese people will not fall to a thousand poisons (guo ren qian du bu qin)" - perhaps a reflection of how numb some have become to news of tainted food.

In the first half of 2012, food inspectors discovered 15,000 cases of food safety violations and shuttered 5,700 unlicensed food businesses. There are no official figures for previous years.

One of the headline-grabbing food scandals featured the use of chromium. The toxic metal that can cause kidney and liver failure was found in the capsules of 13 Chinese medications last April.

More than 20 people were arrested in coastal Zhejiang province for using gelatin containing chromium culled from discarded leather shoes to make the capsules.

Another widely used illicit ingredient is formaldehyde. The media in various cities, especially in southern China, recently reported that rogue merchants have used the toxic compound to preserve cabbages, brew beer and turn pig's blood into fake duck's blood.

Last month, state media reported that high levels of plasticiser - a chemical, which in high doses, can cause kidney and fertility problems - had been found in several liquor products, like the famous Kweichow Moutai.

Last June, a pilot study published in the Journal Of Agriculture And Food Chemistry found that plasticisers, especially the compound DEHP, occur more frequently in Chinese food products than those from other countries.

Despite the list of cases, Prof Luo cautioned the public and media against going to the extreme of succumbing to irrational fear.

He blamed such behaviour on "alarmist" media reports, some of which are not factually accurate and have been circulating of late.

"Many do not have the ability to judge (the authenticity of such reports), so when rumours spread, everyone gets scared," said Prof Luo. He called for government agencies to release more reliable food safety information.

Grace Ng

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