Food in China: a chemical age

Why are toxic chemicals and additives so widely misused in Chinese food production? Gong Jing, Cui Zheng and Wang Qingfeng investigate.

China’s food industry has rapidly industrialised over the last decade, bringing many benefits to the country’s consumers. But techniques originating in the chemical industry are being misapplied in food production, triggering many safety scandals.

Worryingly, these techniques are increasingly refined, making the use of illegal substances ever harder to detect.

Industrial raw materials in food

In May, a government sampling of gelatine used in drug capsules found that firms all over China were using toxic materials to manufacture medicines. Eventually, the State Food and Drug Administration confirmed that more than 12% of the 254 firms tested were using harmful industrial gelatine, rather than edible gelatine, in their capsules.

That is unlikely to be the whole story. If things are this bad in the closely regulated drug industry, other big gelatine users – namely the confectionary and beauty industries – are hardly likely to be doing better, said Zhu Yi, deputy professor of food science and nutritional engineering at China Agricultural University.

On April 19 last year, the Chinese health ministry published a list of 47 non-food substances known to be illegally used in foodstuffs, and a list of dozens of legal additives that are being misused across 22 different categories of food. The agricultural ministry had previously issued a list of dozens of chemicals banned from use in animal fodder, drinking water, or in poultry and aquaculture production.

Food-safety experts said that neither of the health ministry’s lists were complete: the food cheats are far ahead of the authorities.

The economic logic behind the use of industrial raw materials is simple – it is much cheaper than following the rules. When price is everything and regulation is weak, cheap raw materials translate into bigger market share and higher profits.

“Chemical” foods

Along with industrial raw materials, the Ministry of Health’s list included 38 non-food additives being misused in food, the bulk of them chemical compounds.

The motive for using these substances is the same – profit. The chemicals are used either to boost outputs, or to make poor quality products look better so that they can be sold at a higher price. More worryingly, chemical compounds are sometimes used to transform a poor quality product into a fake version of a more expensive one. For example, the toxic chemical dichlorvos is added to ordinary sorghum spirit to make it smell like the Chinese liquor Maotai, which it is then passed off as.

A Ministry of Health working group has also found that the misuse of legal food additives is widespread. Its list includes dozens of legal additives being misapplied across 22 different categories of food.

Research shows that over-consumption of even legal food additives in the long term can increase risks of cancer, deformities and mutations.

One step ahead

In many cases, the methods used to make “chemical foods” are unimaginable even to the experts. Wang Shiping, a food-science doctoral tutor at China Agricultural University explained that farmers couldn’t have come up with the idea of using melamine in milk to give the appearance of high protein levels, nor could the average technician. That scheme required familiarity with the Kjeldahl method, which is used in milk testing to determine nitrogen content and knowledge of the protein content and chemical properties of various additives.

Another case that left even the experts reeling involved beansprouts. A hormone was applied to the vegetables to make them grow faster than normal and without roots. The plump, white product sold well, but eating these beansprouts over the long-term could cause cancer. So who decided to use that hormone? Pig trotters and tofu have been hit by similar scandals.

Li Yongjing is Dupont’s director of nutrition and health for Greater China, deputy secretary of the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology and a senior member of the US Institute of Food Technologists. He noted that the manufacturing processes involved are beyond the abilities of the unqualified – they require accurate quantities and careful timing to work.

Zhu Yi and Wang Shiping agree that methods of fakery used in the food sector have advanced rapidly, leaving regulators and consumers struggling to keep up.

Careful use of industrial salt in soy sauce in a recent case in Foshan, a city in southern China, meant that local food inspectors tested the product twice without finding anything wrong. Similarly, the dairy firms Sanlu, Yili and Mengniu, along with many others, had all been using melamine in their milk long before the practice was exposed.

Zhu Yi said that these “expert” criminals continue to think up new ruses in their pursuit of profit. Recent examples include additives to make dishes smell better, or to improve the taste of braised pork; and passing off cow fat as beef. Experts have found that each of these methods involved various combinations of legal and unapproved additives. 

The stomachs of ordinary people have become the testing ground for these “chemical” foods.

The big boys arrive

For more than a decade, chemicals not meant for the food chain have been added to Chinese food products. The fact these practices have only recently come to public attention is thanks to one change – the big food companies are at it too.

From the use of cancer-causing food dye Sudan Red by KFC in 2005, to the melamine-tainted milk scandal of 2008 and the frequent scares since, big firms have risked their brands and market share with illegal and low standard foods and drugs. Why?

Experts say the proliferation of problem foods rests on two key conditions. First, while the methods used may be harmful, most often they do not lead to immediate illness – the problems appear over the long term, and are not easily traced back to any single food. Second, when given the choice, people still prefer cheap food. China’s huge and urbanising population is still moving out of poverty and has not yet become a discerning customer base.

Then there’s market competition, driving illegal practices up the chain. Individuals or small factories decide to cheat, and their larger competitors – facing cost pressures – follow suit. Finally, large and medium sized companies join in.

The penalties risked during this process are nothing when compared to the potential profits. Zhu Yi urged food policymakers to be aware of this pattern and act to break it.

A Chinese problem

Experts point out that western nations faced similar problems in the past, but that the number of cases in China is shocking nonetheless.

Food tracking is a common method for boosting food safety. Li Yongjing said that if you buy a pear in America, you can easily find out which farm it came from; if you buy a tin of pears, you can find out where the additives were sourced. But in China, this is almost impossible.

In the United States, large or medium-sized firms dominate every part of the food industry. But in China, agricultural products, meat and milk come from a myriad of small farms. Instead of the stable supplier relationships seen in many western nations, Chinese foodstuffs are bought and sold by numerous individuals and traders. Food products are made by individuals and in small workshops. Tens of thousands of small and medium businesses compete in a game of survival of the fittest.

A long supply chain stretches between China’s farms and its dinner tables: there are too many employers, too many products, too many points of sale and too many consumers.

Eight or nine authorities – agricultural, industrial and commercial, quality supervision, health and more – struggle to regulate the sector. Many food-safety experts say that the cost of a food traceability system is more than the Chinese market will accept. But Zhu Yi is adamant that, if China wants to build a safe food industry, this is what it needs.

Li Yongjing and Zhu Yi both said that the Chinese public is inadequately educated about food safety. In the west, unsafe foods do occasionally appear, but are rarely chosen by consumers, and these cases attract little interest – consumers themselves decide that excessively cheap food is likely to be unsafe, they said. But in China, while upmarket food brands have been growing for years, the reality is that they still have small market share and the bulk of consumers are very much price-led.

At a more basic level, China’s penalties for producing harmful foods are too light, and the guilty are rarely caught. Internationally, it is understood that food needs to be regulated – but more, that you cannot stop victims from seeking judicial redress. Otherwise, Zhu Yi asks, how are we to prevent China’s food market from becoming a race to the bottom?


Gong Jing, Cui Zheng and Wang Qingfeng are reporters at Caixin’s New Century Weekly, where this article was originally published.


This article has been edited and translated under our food-safety project, part of the "EU-China Civil Society Dialogue". The project is a collaboration between chinadialogue and the Institute for Civil Society at Sun Yat-sen University, and is funded by the European Union and British Embassy Beijing.

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