Even after two years since the infamous kimchi crisis damaged the whole nation, it strikes me as outrageous to find similar cases of dangerous Chinese food surfacing every month or so. This is even more so with the ever more increasing emphasis on the consumption of healthy food, and well-being becoming an international trend.
Have no measures being taken in order to tackle down such a problem? Or has this problem gone out of control that it cannot be solved? This month's cover story provides in-depth analysis on such phenomenon, with possible answers to these questions.
Bae Han-keol, Editor of International Div.
IN 2004, China’s Anhui province saw a scene similar to the African hinterlands: hundreds of babies were suffering, some even dying, from severe malnutrition. More recently in the U.S., more than 12,000 cats and dogs were reported ill, at least 16 of which died, within a short period of time. Peculiarly, no signs of epidemic were present, yet, the common factor among the victims was narrowed down to the consumption of Chinese-made food. The cause of death in the first situation was discovered to be cheap fake milk powder, and in the second situation, pet food tainted with harmful substances for industrial use.
Given that the Chinese are famous for mass-producing goods at an astonishing rate, at the cheapest prices possible, those goods are universally recognized for their inferior quality. Out of all the goods they produce, the world is especially sensitive about China’s food safety matters. Having sparked a global outcry related to their dubious food quality, Chinese-made food poses a great threat to the world.
The crisis of poisonous food
Kimchi was probably the first food to awaken Koreans to the toxicity of Chinese-made food. In October 2005, the KFDA (Korea Food and Drug Administration) reported that it discovered parasite eggs in kimchi imported from China. Almost two years after this “kimchi crisis,” which shook Koreans with fear, the KFDA again announced this past July that it had found seven cases of cyclamate, an artificial additive 30-50 times sweeter than sugar, in Chinese-made kimchi. Later in August, the Gwangju Regional KFDA revealed that a chemical substance called “crystal violet,” a kind of dyeing agent, was detected in some packages of frozen roasted eels from China.
Asia is not the only continent that is concerned with the safety of food coming from China. In Europe, a carcinogenic agent was discovered in food contents imported from China. According to a French newspaper L’Expansion, color additives, which are not allowed in food, were found in some sauces and rice snacks from China. Carcinogenic mold was discovered in dried fruits, as well as antibiotic remains in marine products. These are just a few examples the newspaper article reported. “Fake food” products, plagiarizing the brand names of famous food manufacturing companies, are also menacing Europeans with questionable quality. Among all the fake food products distributed through the world, “made in China” astonishingly mounted up to 20%.
On the other side of the globe, China is racking its brain over “egg piracy,” the production of fake eggs, which are made from industrial substances, such as calcium chloride and paraffin wax. These fake eggs cost only 0.15 yuan each - half the price of a real egg. Since the process of making fake eggs are quite simple, the instructions are on sale online and the instructors also give out lessons on producing fake eggs, which encourages deceptive traders to mass-produce these artificial eggs to sell at rock bottom prices. Those fake eggs have actually been sold in a wholesale center in Guangzhou city, the capital of Guangdong province.
How toxic food affects the world
Those food additives or noxious substances, prohibited in food products, have harmful effects to the human body. According to the data released by the KFDA, the cyclamate and saccharine added to kimchi have the potential to cause cancer. In the case of the crystal violet found in frozen roasted eels, ingesting it can be fatal. Crystal violet, which was once used as a dye for industrial and medical purposes, is classified as a harmful substance to the human body in the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) released by KOSHA (Korea Occupational Safety ＆ Health Agency). If taken in large doses, it can induce vomit, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and even result in death from hypotension.
In 2004, China’s suspicious food safety level brought malnutrition and death to hundreds of infants in East China’s Anhui province. According to the statistics provided by the Fuyang Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, 97% of the unqualified milk powders failed to reach the national standard of protein content, the most essential nutrient for babies, in infant milk powder. "It is like a nightmare. I never imagined that my baby would pass away like this," said Zhang Linwei, who lost his daughter, as quoted by CCTV (China Central Television).
Unfortunately, it is not only innocent babies who suffer the consequences of fake food. Nearly 8,000 cats and dogs suffered from kidney disease, and some even died after eating Chinese-made pet food carrying the industrial mineral melamine. It was found that the traders falsified the ingredients of the pet food. Melamine is a cheap industrial resin used to make adhesives. Since it contains a high percentage of nitrogen, it has been added to animal food, instead of natural ingredients such as beans or corns, which are relatively expensive. If taken by animals, melamine induces the formation of kidney stones, which lead to renal failure.
What causes such problem?
The causes of the problem regarding the safety of Chinese food can be divided into two parts: the problem in China itself, and the problem concerning imports and inspections.
The primary cause is the vacuum of strict regulations in the food business due to rapid economic growth. In the process of economic development, restrictions that impede the growth of the country tend to be discarded. China’s economy developed at such a rate that the developing speed of its infrastructure could not catch up with that of the economy. As a result, China became lenient about certain restrictions regarding food safety, allowing for a wider range of additives in food products than in most other countries. Industrial substances are often added to food products, to make them look or taste better, as well as preserving them for a longer period of time.
Another cause is the different quarantine processes of importing food for each country. Since every country has different food safety standards, it is difficult to detect the substances not included in the harmful substances data sheet released by its national administration of food and drugs. “When an unidentified ingredient, which is not listed in the category of harmful substances, is discovered in food products, we allow it to be imported at first. Once strange symptoms are reported after eating such food, we then carry out a detailed analysis of it,” confessed an official from the KFDA. She also indicated that only when any traces of harmful substances are found in the food is it then recalled and discarded.
The cure for all
As the country hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, China is throwing all its energy into blotting out its disgraceful image ruined by poisonous food. The Chinese government plans to spend 1.1 million U.S. dollars to improve food and drug safety supervision by 2010, and new regulations have been set to intensify China’s food standards. For example, starting last September, food packages not carrying a label that certifies them as safe have been blocked from export. The government has also started “Believe in Made-in-China” campaign, in order to appeal the safety of Chinese products to its own citizens. “Imported food materials from China can be better in quality than those from Korea, if a strict quality control is carried out. It is the minor enterprises that stir up trouble, shirking the strict quality control,” admits an official from Daesang, a major food company in Korea. The Chinese government should tighten control over food safety, especially in smaller firms, in order to establish a rigid distribution order in China’s food business. Since the misdeeds from such smaller businesses cannot be wiped out overnight, continuous and gradual effort is required.
As for Korea, the government is steadily increasing the number of professionals employed by the KFDA, as well as strengthening its safety management system for imported foods. “Field inspection and an intensive inspection system will be carried out for the countries with a high percentage of food export to Korea, by analyzing the details of food import from such countries,” stated Chang Bok-sim (a member of the National Assembly). The government is also preparing a management system that tracks down the production record, making efforts to increase the recall of harmful foods, which amounted a mere 10% this year. This system is expected to track the transaction records from production to consumption, thus allowing the fast recall of food found to be harmful.
In the meantime, Korea has too many organizations that are responsible for the safety of distributed food products in addition to the KFDA, such as NAQS (National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service), NQS (National Quarantine Station), and NVRQS (National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service). Since too many governmental organizations work on the process of importing food products, the work is too specialized and complex. The process involving the import of foods should be carried out in a more integrated system.
What lies ahead
There is a famous adage, “You are what you eat.” The safety of food products is an extremely sensitive matter in any society, as food directly goes into our body to affect our health and physical condition. It is a consumer’s right to be informed about the safety of the things we eat. In this sense, the threat of toxic Chinese-made food can be subdued through the establishment of a society in which its citizens can trust the food they eat. China’s food safety is now improving step-by-step. Maintaining this process, China should always keep in mind that short term solutions solely aimed at success for the Olympic Games cannot extirpate the root of the problem. The key to a fundamental solution lies within China itself.
The misleading role of the Korean mass media
Unlike in-depth foreign newspaper articles, such as in the New York Times and Washington Post, which report the detection of poisonous substances as well as analyze the core of the problem, Korean newspapers only report the problem without offering any analysis. What’s more, some Korean articles from different newspapers contain almost the same contents with similar context.
“Since Korean newspaper companies have a remarkably small number of correspondents stationed abroad compared to more prominent foreign newspapers, it is difficult for correspondents to write feature articles on controversial issues from those countries. Thus, Korean newspapers have no choice but to rely heavily on foreign sources when reporting international issues,” stated Choi Hyo-chan (Lecturer, Yonsei Univ.). Korean newspaper companies also try to avoid reporting on controversial issues in China for fear of possible political and economic conflicts between the two neighboring countries. Additionally, innocent domestic enterprises are also damaged by such controversy, as already experienced in the kimchi crisis. For such reasons, revealing the truth is always very difficult in Chinese-related food matters.
What newspaper companies can do to produce better news articles regarding Chinese-made food is place this matter on the social agenda while creating a sound atmosphere in which to report it. “At the present state, the articles regarding China are hushed up by the capitalist principle. Yet, in-depth news coverage from abroad should be encouraged in order to report the matter from Korea’s perspective,” suggested Choi. More fundamentally, the Korean government should consider this matter a national security issue, lest the Chinese government abuse their political and economic power in retaliation to any adverse reports from Korea.
False statement of product origins
Insincere traders sometimes try to obscure the place of origin for some agricultural products to boost profit. Powdered red pepper, garlic and grains are the most common produce whose place of origin is falsified as Korea rather than China. NAQS (National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service) works to detect such produce with fake origins by using specified standards it has set up. “NAQS was founded in order to establish systematic distribution routes for agricultural products in Korea,” stated Cho Seong-hwoan (Origin Management Team, NAQS).
Many major food companies worldwide refused to use Chinese food materials due to a considerable number of consumers worried about the dangerous consequences of some inferior Chinese foods. Taking advantage of the situation, a new marketing method called “China-free” has entered the market. A U.S. health food company, “Food for Health International,” launched a campaign to put a sticker that says “China-free” on their products. What’s more, the City of Palm Bay, Florida, has announced that it will launch a “China-free city” campaign, applying quotas to the amount of imports on Chinese products.
As a student highly interested in food matters,news reports on the safety of Chinese-made food have always made me curious about why such things constantly happen all around the world. 'Why is the goverment not willing to take any strict measures to enhance the problem? When will it stop?' I kept asking myself. I hope my article could be a great help to those who have been asking the same question. Since it was an extremely sensitive issue, finding interviewees was much harder than I had expected. I'd like to present my special thanks to the interviewees. <N.N.R.>