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Documenting the Food Safety Crisis—Discovering “the Jungle” in China

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A third-year graduate student in Shanghai launched a database of food safety incidents in China last week. The database was established by 34 volunteers within one month. During the research process, the volunteers read 17,268 relevant news articles (10 million Chinese characters in total) and made 2849 entries into the database.

The database has an interesting name “throw out of the window” (zhi chu chuang wai). The name, according to the student, comes from the anecdote that former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt threw his breakfast sausage out of the window when he read Sinclair’s book “The Jungle”, an event that promoted the passage of Pure Food and Drug Act.

I was surprised by the efficiency of this team because gathering the information of food safety incidents was one of the goals that I had. However, I gave up because first, there were so many incidents that relying on myself to collect was impossible and more importantly, I felt so disheartened when I realized how unsafe the food I used to eat for 25 years was. My project director asked me to write a memo on China’s food safety incidents in 2010 and I already felt sick. So there is no need to express my admiration to the team for their courage.

My western colleagues seem concerned about food borne disease outbreaks such as E coli O104:H4 in Germany or Salmonella in the States. The causes of the outbreaks are likely the improperly processed food.

In China, however, at least in the recent incidents, the causes are additives which are used excessively, or even worse, substances that are for industrial uses.

Chinese manufacturers’ creativity is far beyond your imagination. Melamine, an industrial chemical used in plastics, has become well known for poisoning infants when manufacturers added it into milk to mislead food inspectors about the milk powder’s protein levels. Restaurants use refined trench oil to cook dishes, or apply beef extracts to pork to make it taste like beef to save costs. On Consumer Protection Day, CCTV (not close-circuited TV, but the biggest state-owned TV station) disclosed that the largest meat processer added Ractopamine, a feed additive that promotes pigs’ leanness, into hams. I could give you more examples, but I am almost positive that you don’t want to hear them all.

The illustrations above do not mean that you cannot find any safe food in China. Quite the contrary, no melamine was found in dairy products supplied to Olympic athletics. Some government agencies have their own farms that produce organic food. The former CFO of Mengniu, the largest dairy producer in China guaranteed Hong Kong media that the products it sent to Hong Kong were superior to milk sold in mainland. And don’t worry too much about imported food from China that you can buy in the U.S., because the presence of U.S. FDA in Beijing is playing an important role in monitoring the quality of
imported products (even though it only examines a small portion of those products).

I am not so familiar with U.S. FDA’s mechanism although I did read a book on its history and attended several lectures at Georgetown. But I am amazed by how American people trust the agency in terms of the technical capacity and the test results it publishes. It took me quite a while to explain to my Chinese-American boss who did not understand why Chinese people chose to believe a 12-year-old pupil’s test, which showed 12 out of 16 mushroom samples from markets were contaminated by fluorescent agents, whereas the food quality control agency showed more than 97% were qualified. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying the agency published wrong results or the pupil had higher credentials. What I, as a Chinese person, want to convey here is that when facing a sharp contrast between almost impeccable test reports produced by agencies and incident discoveries published by mass media, there must be some inconsistencies and average people may not know whom to believe.

The Chinese government has taken actions which regulate the industry and benefit people. Food Safety Law was published in February 2009, about 6 months after the melamine scandal. The law, for the first time, establishes a series of mechanisms, such as risk monitoring and evaluation, recall, and information publication, to ensure food safety. The Standing Committee of National People’s Congress organized two consecutive annual nation-wide inspections of the enforcement of the Food Safety Law, and that was unprecedented in China’s history. This year, criminal Law has been amended and food safety criminals can be sentenced to death (no intention to start another discussion about the penalty here). Food Safety Commissions were established at central and provincial levels, made up of high-ranked officials. Local governments started a special one-year
campaign to discover and destroy unqualified food in which substances that are not supposed to be added are added. It could be possible that the frequency of food incidents increased because the media are more likely to report them.

In addition, the government is aware of the importance of international cooperation. For instance, China’s State Food and Safety Administration (SFDA) is working closely with the U.S. FDA on food safety issues. FDAs at local levels send young visiting scholars to learn foreign countries’ advanced experiences. These steps reflect a more open-minded way to
tackle local issues.

It is worth noting that when “the Jungle” was published, food safety was not as good as it is now in the U.S. – It takes time for a country to find out the truth, to have the courage of publishing the information to the society, to face the challenges, and to build capacities. Maybe the food safety crisis is a chance for Chinese civil societies to raise their voices, and for the government to review legal documents and the implementation of its food safety regime. I hope eventually the database won’t have new entries, and Chinese people can enjoy safe food in their own country, as the right to food (or to be more exact, safe food in this context) is a fundamental right.

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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