China’s food safety crisis: how serious is the problem?
August 28th, 2012
10:56 AM ET

China’s food safety crisis: how serious is the problem?

By Yanzhong Huang, CFR

Yanzhong Huang is senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of Asia Unbound originally appeared here. The views expressed are the author's own.

Last month, in the 2012 FIVB World Grand Prix Finals, China’s women’s volleyball team fell to countries that did not even qualify for the 2008 Olympics, where China won Bronze. The coach blamed his team’s abysmal performance on their vegetarian diet, saying that the athletes had not had any meat for three weeks. The players were certainly not vegetarians: they abstained from meat lest contamination of chemicals such as clenbuterol interfere with their urine tests. The excuse was not as lousy as it initially sounded: early this year, China’s State General Administration of Sports issued a document forbidding its athletes from consuming meat outside of official training facilities.

The sports incidence epitomizes the rapidly rising concerns about food safety in China. Twenty years ago, with the exception of the few expats living in China, few there would consider food safety a problem. Today, almost everybody I spoke with in China – people I knew well and those I did not – expressed their concern about adulterated food. My speculation that food safety problems in China have worsened is substantiated by the website “Throw out of window” created by Wu Heng, a postgraduate of Fudan University, to track China’s food safety incidents from 2004 to 2011. In the spring of 2012, a survey carried out in 16 major Chinese cities asked urban residents to list “the most worrisome safety concerns.” Food safety topped the list (81.8 percent), followed by public security (49 percent), medical care safety (36.4 percent), transportation safety (34.3 percent), and environmental safety (20.1 percent).

Due to government incentives to cover up or downplay problems associated with social-political stability, it is difficult to gauge the full extent of food safety problems in China. An Asian Development Bank report released in 2007 (prior to the tainted baby formula scandal) estimated that 300 million Chinese might be affected by food borne disease annually. Food borne disease can result from consumption of food contaminated by toxins, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites. While it is relatively easy to link a health problem (e.g., acute diarrhea) to infections resulting from the consumption of contaminated food or water, it is unlikely for chronic health conditions (e.g., cancer) caused by food tainted with toxic chemicals to be included in annual statistics, even though illegal food additives or noxious substances in food are becoming a major health hazard in China. A 2011 study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene suggests that more than 94 million people become ill annually from bacterial food borne diseases alone, which led to approximately 3.4 million hospitalizations and more than 8,500 deaths. By way of comparison, the CDC estimates that food borne bacteria, viruses, and microbes combined cause forty eight million Americans to fall ill, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths a year.

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What is to blame for China’s food safety crisis? In an opinion piece published in the International Herald Tribune this month, I argued that the crisis highlighted China’s failure to establish a code of business ethics as its market economy expands faster than government regulators can keep pace. In the absence of effective regulations and moral constraints, private profit too often trumps public good. Ironically, what is happening in China is exactly what Karl Marx described 150 years ago. He said that with adequate profit “there is not a crime at which [capital] will [not] scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged.” In a country where serving God is still suppressed, and “serving the people” is no longer in vogue, serving money seems to be the main attractive option. In an October 2011 nationwide online survey of nearly 23,000 adults, more than half of the respondents did not think complying with ethical standards was a necessary condition for success in Chinese society (again, by way of comparison, only 24 percent of financial executives in the U.S. say illegal or unethical conduct may be necessary for success).

As a Tsinghua University professor said, since counterfeiters and adulterers are also victims of other unsafe food, “this is a society where everybody intoxicates everybody.” Wu Heng echoed this by warning that Chinese are “exchanging feces to eat.” A neo-Hobbesian world of everyone against everyone is probably an overstatement. However, a functioning society needs basic moral codes in order to restrain dangerous behaviors. In a make believe world where that baseline morality is suffering a great leap backward, a social breakdown may not be a far-fetched scenario.

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Topics: China • Food

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Burning Ignorance

    Just one question, what about all the hormones enjected animals, and genetically modified crops in the US? They're dangerous too... what's your take on that since it's another case of failure to establish a code of business ethics, but wait isn't it backed up by the government....So, while the Chinese government at least is cracking down on the unethical food... Isn't the US government encouraging food like pink slime to be produced and put into children's lunches, yuck!

    August 28, 2012 at 11:11 am | Reply
  2. Idahosa

    China still have a long way to go, I pity Africa that China is trying to romance with cheap and fake product and its high time African leader rise against modern colonization.

    August 28, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Reply
    • Burning Ignorance

      ^.... And you think the previous colonizers in the West will give out better deals.....
      Geez, are Apple products cheap and fake? What about Sony or LG? Uhhhh, you must be a cheapscate cause the quality and real stuff are made in China to, idiot.

      August 28, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Reply
  3. john

    The situation is dramatically better in the USA than China. I have personally witnessed the sanitation and food issues noted by the author. More important is his observation that Chinese society provides no systematic moral barriers to cheating and corruption, except the fear of getting caught. In the USA, we need to be vigilant against dangerous Chinese products such as generic drugs. Our major pharmacy chains may or may not test pharmaceuticals for purity, as a way to save money. How do you know that the low cost drugs from anywhere in the USA actually conform to the label, if they are imported from China? Ask your pharmacist for proof. I did from a major chain, and was given the brushoff from their corporate office.

    August 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, money corrupts and greed is the roots of all evil. With the economic boom China has become an El Dorado for many who just want to make a fast buck. Crooks, charlatans, fraudsters and imposters were non-existent in the old days of communism.

    August 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  5. Learn2Serve

    The US still has lots of Food Safety issues going on but like John said it is much better than the situation there in China. I hope the government will take action and try to prevent this from escalating.

    August 30, 2012 at 7:08 am | Reply
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    November 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
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