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Chinese consumers must reject polluted food

Chemicals and hormones entering the food chain can have disastrous consequences for human health. It's time to take a stand on food contamination, writes Jiang Gaoming.

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On a recent trip to a chicken farm, I found that in the six months since I last visited, the farm’s guard dog had put on weight and become lethargic. He was more friendly than ferocious. As it turned out, the farm owner had tried to save trouble by feeding chicken fodder to his dog. The German Shepherd had lost interest in his previous diet of leftover meals, and this was the result.

The chicken feed comes from a well-known local company, and is priced at 140 yuan (around US$20) a bag. It contains a mix of hormones, trace elements and animal proteins. This diet can fatten a newly hatched chick into a plump five-kilogram chicken in 41 to 45 days, while grain-fed birds take around 150 days to reach three kilograms. The same time-saving, rapid-growth fodder has been used by farmers raising pigs – feed additives mean pigs can be raised in four months, rather than the usual 12 – as well as ducks, geese, fish, shrimp, crabs, eels and turtles. Some are even raising cows on this chicken feed.

If the feed could change a dog’s temperament, it is unlikely to be doing us any good either, when it enters the human food chain. China’s markets and supermarkets are filled with this “rapid-growth food”: meat, eggs and seafood; fruit and vegetables grown out of season; grain cultivated with fertilisers and pesticides. There is no other choice on our shelves.

Numerous food additives are already in use. Borax, a compound initially used in the chemical industry for the production of ceramics, optical fibre, cosmetics and fertiliser, is now used as a food additive in China. An investigation following a food-poisoning incident in south China’s Guangxi province found of the 13 types of food tested, 12 contained borax. The compound was also the cause of a mass food poisoning incident at a middle school.

Plump, succulent watermelons; tempting red tomatoes; golden yellow pears: who knows what harmful substances may lurk within? Both Jinan and Xi’an have reported three and four-year-old boys growing beards and young girls growing breasts due to their additive-filled diets. Fruit-growers use over a dozen different hormones to speed up the ripening process, increase fruit size and affect colouring. Hormones increase harvests, and for the farmers it seems ridiculous not to use them. Even I got excited about the possibilities 25 years ago, when I was teaching a course on plant biology. But problems arising from these developments have caused a necessary rethink.

Other substances that make their way into our foods include trace elements, which are mostly heavy metals, brightening agents, preservatives and artificial colourings – not to mention the potential risks of genetically-modified foods. Technology is taking over the food production industry: the industry with the greatest impact on our health. We have struggled for a long time to make sure we have adequate shelter and nutrition, but some of the advances we made along the way come with a huge price tag. In terms of humanity’s survival, they may even be a step backwards.

The use of feed additives can reduce disease among livestock, promote growth and allow more intensive farming. But the dangers to human health and the environment are becoming ever more apparent. A particular additive that promotes the growth of lean meat in pigs, in humans causes heart palpitations, high blood pressure, muscle tremors, headaches, nausea and anxiety – and in the most serious cases, convulsions and blackouts. Pork contaminated with just 2.8 milligrams per kilogram caused a cluster of 31 poisoning cases in Guangdong in April, 2002.

Our overheated economy has brought massive ecological damage to China. Nobody can deny that the cities lack clean air, while the countryside lacks clean water. Now the problem is spreading to our food. Urban residents, who make up 30% of the population, may yet pay the price of polluted food (those in rural areas tend to keep the safe food for themselves). Modern agriculture uses fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, additives and hormones with abandon; crops are farmed out of season and genetically-modified organisms are used to increase growth, while quality drops. No one is willing to pay premium prices for high quality food, so no one produces any.

While our food may be cheap, however, we could end up spending more treating the health problems it raises. The same is true in developed countries. The US has no problem with the size of its harvests, but declining quality has caused genuine concern. Arsenic has been found in chickens on sale in US supermarkets. Obesity is widespread, meaning profits to companies selling weight-loss drugs; companies that are now planning an assault on the Chinese market.

One of the major factors behind the hidden dangers in our food is a quest for profit. Farmers can buy any of these feed additives, hormones and drugs appearing on the market. Therefore, manufacturers are even known to use industrial materials to reduce costs and grab market share. The emphasis is on keeping costs down, and there is no way to eradicate the risks. Nor does legislation seem able to keep up with the challenge of increasingly intensive agriculture.

Solving food safety issues means looking at the market. If urban consumers refuse food that contains hormones and additives, if they stop buying genetically modified or out-of-season food, sales will drop. Differential pricing for products of different quality will mean consumer feedback, which can encourage farmers to produce safer food. Solving the root of the problem means society rejecting this dangerous “rapid-growth food”. The government must strengthen oversight of food safety, and allow the people to eat without fear.




Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.




Homepage photo by Philippe Semanaz

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



There are pursuers in front, and no way to go back

Talking about quality means talking about capital, and lowered production volumes. Surely, this isn't easy for China at the present time. However, without doubt, our consumers' ideas should take a step back, we should minimise the amount of food we eat, and utilise effectively the limited resources of food available. We mustn't again try to develop our agricultural market. Supermarket shelves are full of a variety of foods, however we mustn't pursue a lifestyle where everyone drinks milk, and has meat for every meal. Our population is so large, we should treasure our limited resources.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Support the conclusion but resent the logic

Chicken feed can change a dog's temperament. However, this is totally incomparable with food regulations impacting on human health.

It is wrong to describe the possibility of trace elements being mixed deliberately into animal feed saying that "feed contains a mix of hormones, trace elements and animal proteins."

The author has generalised exceptional behaviour in a way that is unreasonable.

Borax is a banned food additive, but this does not suggest that all food additives must be banned. It is like advocating killing a whole family because one of its members committed a crime.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


忽然发现重金属在这里英文的翻译是trace elements,不知道英文和中文哪个是原版,必定有一个是不正确的。重金属正确的翻译应该是heavy metal,它的定义很多,一般认为是密度较大的一些金属元素,镉,镍,镉,汞,铅等我们所熟知的有毒元素包括其中,金,银,铁等常见低毒元素也包括其中,一概认为重金属有毒也是不对的。痕量元素是从自然界的数量分布来定义的,我们知道,所谓污染,所谓有害,都必须跟污染物的量联系起来看,比如镍镉电池里面的镍,就是植物和微生物的必需元素,但是在植物体内量很少,被认为是一种痕量营养元素,其他的一些常被宣传的痕量元素还有铁,锌,硒等。在宣传使用时,重金属往往指的是有害的那部分重金属(严格应该叫有害重金属,toxic heavy metals),而痕量元素往往指有益的痕量元素。

A Correction

I suddenly think there is a mistake in the English translation. "Trace elements" is used for "heavy metals (translated directly)", I don't know which is the original text, but "heavy metal" would be a better translation. Usually this refers to dense metallic elements including toxic elements such as lead, mercury, nickel, or cadmium, and also low toxicity elements such as iron, gold and silver. Simply claiming that heavy elements are toxic is incorrect.

Trace elements volumes are calculated based on natural background volumes. We all know that "pollution", and "harmful" should both be considered together. For example the nickel in nickel cadmium batteries, is a required element in plants and micro-particles, but is only found in very small quantities in plants, and is considered a necessary trace nutritional element. Other well publicised trace elements include iron and so on. Usually when writing, heavy metals (the chinese term), is often used to refer to harmful heavy metals (and should strictly be called toxic heavy metals), whereas trace elements usually refers to elements which have a benefit of some kind.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



3 Key Questions

1. Relying only on market measures isn't enough
2. Administrative measures and systemic barriers need to keep pace.
3. In order to achieve 1 and 2, grass roots organisations, media, and the general public need to increase participation. China needs public food safety self-discipline!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


因为中国的人口那么多,大规模的农业,使用生长激素或者其他食品添加剂来促进产量,从某种程度上来说对满足国家的需求是很现实的。农民们希望获得最大的效益,那么多的人都需要吃饭,因此食品添加剂的使用满足了这种需求。然而,如果养鸡饲料的使用扩展到 其他动物,比如猪和羊,那么这种污染的扩大和产生突变的可能将会危及到公众。

Consumer Choice Not So Easy

Because the population is so large, super-agriculture or the use of growth hormones and other additives for production are on one hand realistic to the needs of the country. The farmers want to make the greatest profit and with such a huge population, people need to eat and therefore additives fullfill a need. However, use of this chicken feed across the board for other animals, like pigs and sheep, increase the contamination and creates mutative qualities that put the public at risk. Claiming that the public can make choices when they buy their food as to which products they support to curb use of hormones etc, isn't that simple. Generally if people know that something is less beneficial for them, they will buy it. When the growth hormones are in everything, however, from frutis and vegetables to meat products, and those options are at the moment the cheapest, they will be bought regardless. Finding a means to lower costs of production will ultimately make safer food cheaper, and only when the healthier product is cheaper will the public buy it.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Similar to comment 2, I support the conclusion but resent the logic. This is mainly because there is a lot of generalizing in this article. With the current food crisis caused by rising food prices, enacting any type of change will be difficult. Those lucky enough that can afford to buy higher quality food can do so to protect themselves from potential negative side effects and as a protest against non-organic foods. Unfortunately, most of the world can not do so and the hormones, additives, genetically-modified foods, and preservatives have been able to help feed millions of people. The serious health risks nevertheless need to be addressed immediately. The unknown long-term affects can not be addressed because, well, they are still unknown. Proving a cause and effect relationship between the long-term affects and non-organic foods will also be very difficult in the future.