Fixing the food chain

The Shanghai Expo has triggered a familiar clampdown on food-safety violations in China. But, says Jiang Gaoming, the public needs protecting all the time – not just at international events.

By the time it closes in October, the Shanghai World Expo is expected to have attracted 206 nations and international organisations, and 70 million visitors – 400,000 to 500,000 each day. When I visited the Expo site prior to its opening, I found myself wondering what all these visitors would eat, and how that food would be kept safe.

The organisers started identifying catering providers for the Expo Park very early on – from sit-down restaurants, fast-food chains and snack shops to food courts and coffee bars. Leading Chinese and overseas caterers have been brought in, with food from every part of the world. And food transported into the Expo Park or into Shanghai is subjected to strict testing.

The news that food quality would be a key issue for the Expo quickly spread throughout China. In rural Shandong, in the east of the country, cattle merchants have always always tended to choose cows that have been fed additives to increase leanness, as these animals yield more meat, and therefore more profit. But now the merchants are rejecting additive-fed cows as the meat cannot be sold in Shanghai. The farmers who listened to the merchants in the past have been left high and dry.

China has clamped down on the manufacture and sale of leanness enhancers in the wake of poisoning incidents in Guangzhou and elsewhere. But traders have been illegally selling clenbuterol – the raw material used to make the additives – to cattle farmers. This has almost become an unwritten rule of the beef and pork industry. My organic farming project in Shandong has been helping farmers raise cows on waste straw rather than additives, but we can’t get a decent price for the animals. The buyers look at the large stomachs of our cattle and drop the price, paying 14.8 yuan (US$2.17) per kilogram for a live animal – compared to 15.6 yuan (US$2.29) per kilogram for an additive-fed beast with its small stomach, low levels of fat and lean meat.

But the recent refusal to buy additive-fed cows is not due to a sudden attack of conscience. The merchants simply do not dare to take any chances with the food safety rules put in place for the Shanghai Expo. And so all traces of leanness enhancers have to be eliminated.

We only ever worry about food safety for one of two reasons: either there have been illnesses or deaths, such as melamine poisoning from milk powder, clenbuterol poisoning from leanness enhancers in pork or malnutrition from fake milk powder. Or there is a major international event taking place, such as the 2008 Olympics, or this year’s Expo. But in neither case are the root problems addressed, and once the clampdowns slacken off, everything returns to normal – the clearest demonstration of this being two scandals over milk powder occurring just two years apart.

During the Beijing Olympics, the authorities boosted food-safety supervision at the event’s designated caterers and released a document specifying eight areas for oversight and setting out 35 detailed rules. Nothing was left to chance. Food is of prime importance to the public and any food-safety incident during a major international event presents a poor image to the world. So no room can be left for error.

But, in reality, the far greater concern is food safety after those incidents or events. Besides appealing to the morality of those manufacturing, processing and growing food, it may be possible to achieve results by looking at the hidden chains of interests in the sector. Taking the meat trade as an example, we have a chain running from cattle farmers to cattle traders to slaughterhouses to meat markets and finally to urban consumers.

The consumers blindly purchase lean meat, while the merchants claim that this is what the market demands. Getting lean meat from animals reared naturally is expensive and leaves little room for profit. There is more money from those raised on leanness enhancers and so the ban has had little effect. But it would not be hard to reduce the usage of those additives if consumers sought out meat with layers of fat, which is less likely to contain the additives.

Although the use of leanness enhancers is explicitly banned in China, it is hard to detect usage. The tests need to be done before slaughter, and cost at least 150 yuan (US$22) per head, which means only a sample of animals can be checked. The costs are even higher for large animals such as cows. And this is not a test that the consumers can carry out themselves.

I propose that food safety issues arising from chains of interest such as this be dealt with by: the state maintaining strong supervision of food safety over the long term; switching from monitoring samples at slaughterhouses to testing of live animals at farms in order to scare off users of illegal additives at the source; helping consumers to identify healthy foods and to understand that they cannot be produced unless animals are reared naturally; and for farmers to learn not to cause harm to others and ultimately themselves for slightly larger profits. Stronger action against illegal foodstuffs and animal fodder is needed in order to provide the public with healthy food and drink.

Jiang Gaoming is a professor and PhD tutor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of China Society of Biological Conservation and board member of China Environmental Culture Promotion Association.

Homepage image from Environmental Protection Bureau of Wendeng