China’s Food Safety Problems


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China has, for the last thirty years, experienced rapid, unprecedented economic growth of around 6.9 percent per capita per annum (Naughton 2007). Along with this growth, China began opening up to the rest of the world and in 2001 China gained entry to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), this admittance meant that trade between China and the rest of the world became much more extensive. While China’s impressive growth since the early 1980’s has helped to lift millions of Chinese people out of poverty and improved wage rates and living and working conditions for many, it has also brought about societal changes with the birth of a new Chinese middle class. This new class, with many of its influences coming from the West, has drastically changed the population’s consumption patterns, especially those centered around the food that the home market eats. Naughton (2018) explains that the main reason for economic development is to improve quality of life and it is clear that economic growth has indeed improved quality of life for many of the population through higher wages, better housing and the opportunity for education. The growth has indeed meant that the living standards have risen for most of the Chinese population which has had important effects on diet, food and the amount of income which is spent on food (Lam et al 2013). It has, unfortunately, also encouraged ever-growing social divisions in Chinese society, especially between those who live in urban and rural China. Urbanisation, industrialization and population growth has also had an impact on the amount of farming activity in the agricultural sector, this along with the developments mentioned above is affecting China’s ability to grow enough food to feed the population. The agricultural sector has lost much of its governmental investment and support, and the country’s geography is also an issue. With dwindling water supplies and diminishing land, China’s arable land equates to only 15 percent of the nations land mass (Naughton 2018). China now has only 7-9 percent of the globe’s arable land but at the same time has 20 percent of the world’s population, which means its ability to produce enough home grown food is drastically diminished and well below the global average (Lam et al 2013). Food safety, while not a problem unique to China, has become a harmful and worrisome problem for the country’s consumers. The issue of food safety was ranked first in the top five issues that worried the Chinese population, surpassing issues such as public and traffic safety (Lam et al 2013). Whilst those who are able to afford higher prices for “safer” food, the socio-economic divisions mean that many people in both rural and urban areas of China are left wondering whether the foodstuffs they are buying are safe or legitimate, as they are unable or in some cases unwilling to spend extra for labelled or properly regulated food.

Food Safety Issues

Food safety has become one of China’s biggest social challenges and needs addressing urgently, it is also an issue that sets China apart from other developing countries as domestic issues concerning food safety are far more frequent (Wu et al 2013). There have been several food safety related incidents that have grabbed the world’s attention and caused a severe amount of harm to the Chinese population. The first most notable instance happened in the late 1980’s in Shanghai, where the consumption of raw clams that had been infected with a virus, hepatitis A, affected the health of just under 300,000 people in the area (Wu et al 2013). Another incident is that of milk, milk products and baby formula that were found to have been tainted with melamine, the first outbreak occurred in 2008, the issue was again uncovered in 2010, both instances affected hundreds of thousands of children and adults (Wu et al 2013).

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Lam et al (2013) explains that China’s economic and industrial growth has limited agricultural production and has put extra pressure on available sources of freshwater and usable soil. The above pressures are added to by the change in China’s consumption patterns, which have moved away from the historical staples of legumes and grains, with dairy, animal products and edible oils becoming a larger part of Chinese diets. Popkin (2008) supports that the change in consumption pattern is due to the rise of GDP per capita, for each increase in income, chinese adults proportionally increase the amount of animal source foods that they eat, with eggs, pork, dairy, beef and fish becoming an increasingly larger proportion of the wealthier middle-class’ diet. The changes in consumption have led to increased food safety issues, especially those centered around illegal additives and contamination of produce by toxic chemicals and industrial waste (Lam et al 2013). Lam et al (2013) goes on further to explain that whilst food has always been an important part of life in terms of fulfilling a basic human need, it has now also become important to many as a way of making profit commercially. This shift is partly to blame for illegal activities which have been uncovered as food producers endeavour to increase their margins and for the loss of trust the public has for food safety in China.

Tainted Pork

Historically, pork and other meat in China was most commonly bought and eaten for special occasions and during festival periods, with grains, mainly rice and fresh vegetables making up the largest proportion of the average person’s food intake. However, since China’s economic expansion and trade liberalisation, the consumption of meat has increased massively making China the world’s largest meat consuming market (Zhang et al 2018). The country’s population consumes half of the pork produced globally, with annual per capita consumption growing from 13.6kg in the 1980’s to 61kg in 2013 (Zhang et al 2018). This increase has also made China the biggest importer of pork and due to consumer demand and insecurities surrounding foods including adulterated pork it has meant that the domestic consumer in China now prefers to buy imported pork, over locally produced pork as they believe that the quality is far superior and thus better for their health, regardless of the fact that imported pork often carries a far higher price tag (Ma et al 2016).

China’s globalisation has had an impact on the modern day preferences the population has when purchasing pork. Western influences regarding health and food consumption has led to consumers wanting leaner meat (Ma et al 2016). This new, mostly middle class, demand could be argued to be responsible for the many, including the 2011, pork related scandals that found that large quantities of fresh pork had been contaminated by Clenbuterol or Ractopamine, a steroid drug which is used to reduce the amount of fat stored by an animal, or human, and actively promote muscle growth, resulting in a much leaner healthier pork meat (Wang et al 2018). Tainted pork has led to hundreds of people seeking medical help and at least one person dead (Waldmeir et al 2011). Research conducted by Wang et al (2018) and Ma et al (2016) found that economic factors heavily affect the purchasing choices made by Chinese consumers. It was shown that although for some health and nutrition played a part in the decision of how much to spend on pork, better quality, higher certificated and imported pork had a higher price and was mostly bought by those from middle to high income households as they were able to afford it and were more knowledgeable regarding safety standards and labelling (Ma 2016). Gaps in economic development between provinces and regions show that social gaps are making food safety worse, with people from less economically developed regions not only being found not to be able to afford higher quality meat but also not being fully educated about or aware of the different labelling systems, such as ‘Organic’ or ‘Green’ food labels, exposing a need for increased public awareness (Wang 2018).

Contaminated Dairy

Along with increased meat consumption, China’s GDP per capita growth has led to a considerable expansion in the purchase and consumption of dairy and dairy products. Dairy consumption per capita has risen from 8kg, one the lowest in the world, in 1996 to ******kg This new demand however, has led to dairy producers adulterating milk and other products in order to make production cheaper and keep up with the level of demand. In 2008 the issue of melamine tainted baby formula and other dairy products and foodstuffs was brought sharply to China’s and the world’s attention. Melamine has a high non-protein nitrogen level, which means that it can be added to milk or other products to falsely increase the observable protein content of the product (Bhalla et al 2009). The addition of melamine to milk based infant formula in China allowed manufacturers to dilute the milk with water, lowering production costs in the process, while increasing the visible protein content of the formula and pass all the necessary quality control tests at the time (Bhalla et al 2009). As a result of the contamination more than 290,000 people, most of whom were infants, were poisoned and at least 6 babies died after consuming the formula (Xui et al 2010). Westernised changes to Chinese social norms and gender roles are seen to be partly to blame for scandals such as this. With the mass urbanisation and rural to urban migration that has occurred in the past thirty years, many more women have gone to work for urban companies to earn more money. Whilst developmentally this is a positive, it has led to changes in the way mothers parent their babies as many of them are expected back at work relatively quickly after giving birth. Jing (2000) explains that historically breastfeeding was the accepted way of providing the nutrients an infant required, however with modernisation greater visibility of western scientific artificial feeding substitutes have led to lower breastfeeding statistics especially in urban areas. Chinese mothers have admitted to using baby formula after leaving the hospital as they are aware that they will have to return to work and that it is a convenient way of feeding their baby and if they were able to afford it buying imported infant formula as it was more trustworthy than chinese brands, even more so after the findings in 2008 (Qiao et al 2012). The melamine scandal proved to be very lucrative for the large dairy corporations and under two years later is was uncovered that not all of the contaminated batches had been destroyed and that 170 metric tons of the tainted milk powder has been re-packaged and sold (Xiu et al 2010).

Food Contaminated with Pesticides

China’s agricultural sector is the world’s number one user of toxic chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, the over use of said chemicals has meant that exported batches of food from China are often rejected by the receiving foreign countries. Food safety issues concerning chemical residues found in produce are frequently a top concern for the Chinese public (Yan 2012). Chemicals such as pesticides are used widely used as a way to ensure high crop yield and growth efficiency, historically the over use of them has been in response to food security issues but the continued dependence on them has resulted in contamination of the surrounding environments and is associated with many of the long term health issues suffered by those who have ingested or come into contact with them (Chen 2011). Chen (2011) explains that contamination of fruits and vegetables has been given a lot of attention, especially as much of the fresh produce is eaten raw, before the residues levels have had time to adequately diminish. The use of pesticides and other chemicals is down to the farmers who grow the crops for general consumption and while the government have banned the use of many highly toxic compounds and has promoted the use of greener alternatives, the use of harmful and in some cases illegal pesticides remains high (Fang 2018). Historically it would be reasonable to argue that lack of knowledge of the pesticides being used meant that farmer chose their brand solely on the basis of its effectiveness with no attention paid to the possible health side effects (Hou et al 2010). However, in research carried out by Fang et al (2018), it was found that farmers rarely ate the produce that they grew for commercial sale, opting instead to eat the fruits and vegetables they had grown on private plots. Items grown on the plots had either been sprayed with very little pesticide or none at all, proving their understanding and concern for the negative consequences of consuming residue contaminated food. The farmers considered the plots safer than the fields as they were able to grow their own produce without using chemical agents and if they did use them they were able to keep track of the date the pesticides were sprayed and thus not consume the produce until enough time had passed to make it safe (Fang et al 2018). Whilst most commonly associated with fruits and vegetables the chemicals widely used in China are also detrimental to sea-life often contaminating the seafood that China consumes and supplies to the world markets, with export demands now lessening over growing fears or poor product quality (Xu et al 2012). The pesticides have recently also been found to have been a contaminant found in alcohol made using the crop sorghum, whilst a valid concern, fermentation and the process of distilling the liquor dramatically reduced the percentage of harmful residues found (Han et al 2017).

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