A new food-safety fear

Guest post by chinadialogue intern Guo Xiaohe

On the evening of 11 April 2011, a China Central Television (CCTV) programme exposed Hualian and other large supermarkets in the Pudong area of Shanghai for selling steamed buns “dyed” with chemicals. The programme detailed allegations and singled out the Shanghai branch of Sheng Lu Food Company which was subsequently shut down.

Sheng Lu Food Company had been producing fake “corn steamed buns” by mixing flour and cornmeal with colouring and flavouring agents and by recycling old steamed buns. In recent years, corn steamed buns have become increasingly popular with consumers because of their nutritional value and so a number of retailers have started using this production technique to make large profits. The high level of sweeteners and colouring agents found in the buns surpass food safety standards. Long-term consumption of such chemicals will cause negative health effects, especially on the liver and nervous system.

The CCTV report prompted further inspection of steamed buns in other parts of China. Stained buns were found in various production workshops in Wenzhou and Xiamen. According to  Xinhua, a workshop in Wenzhou sold nearly 200,000 contaminated steamed buns between 22 March and 14 April, 11,000 of which were sold to a nearby university.

Reporters investigating the incident found that the hygiene standards of steamed bun production workshops were crude, with raw materials and food stacked haphazardly creating worrying health conditions.

According to CCTV’s report, this is not the first time Sheng Lu Food Company has been exposed for poor production processes and yet sales to large Shanghai supermarkets such as Hualian and Lianhua remain strong. The new reporter found boxes of food loaded for transportation to major stores “including Shanghai’s famous Christine Bakerychain and Shen Dacheng on Nanjing Road”.

The quality control checks carried out by both the food safety authorities and the supermarkets failed to identity contaminated steamed buns. This “double failure” will no doubt create a crisis in public confidence.

In a speech given to the Central Research Institute of Culture and History (CRICH) on the 14 April, Premier Wen Jiabao called for increased efforts to improve food safety. He said that recent food safety scandals – including the melamine-contaminated milk, clenbuterol-contaminated pork, the rampant use of oil retrieved from drainage gutters for cooking by restaurants, and recently discovered “dyed” steamed buns- revealed a serious lack of integrity, and moral decline in society.

Contaminated steamed buns have once again triggered a crisis of public confidence in food safety. Public trust clearly needs to be rebuilt and food safety regulation processes require an immediate overhaul.