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China's Corrupt Food Chain

Author: Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health
August 18, 2012
International Herald Tribune


An April report by China's national broadcaster CCTV detailed the manufacturing process followed by 16 companies that sell preserved fruit. It made the meat-packing methods described by Upton Sinclair in "The Jungle" a century ago seem pale by comparison.

Rotten peaches pickled in outdoor pools surrounded by garbage are spiked with sodium metabisulfite to keep the fruit looking fresh and with bleaching agents and additives harmful to the human liver and kidneys. The peaches are packed in uncleaned bags that previously held animal feed and then shipped off to big-brands stores.

Toxic preserved fruit is the latest item on China's expanding list of unsafe food products. Baby formula adulterated with melamine is the best known, but there is also meat containing the banned steroid clenbuterol, rice contaminated with cadmium, noodles flavored with ink and paraffin, mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach and cooking oil recycled from street gutters. A 2011 study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene estimated that more than 94 million people in China become ill each year from bacterial food-borne diseases, leading to about 8,500 deaths annually.

China's food-safety problems highlight both the collapse of the country's business ethics and the failure of government regulators to keep pace with the expanding market economy. Yet an excessive focus on poor government oversight often means that the much graver problem of disintegrating civic morality is neglected.

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