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Cover Stories Series 2012> Protecting Consumers' Interests> Archive
UPDATED: March 27, 2011 NO. 13 MARCH 31, 2011
Food, Food, Safe Food
New scandal triggers debate on solutions to food safety problems in China

OFF THE MARKET: A saleswoman in a supermarket in Jiyuan City, Henan Province, takes hams produced by Shuanghui Group off the shelves on March 19 (ZHU YANG)

In February, the NPC Standing Committee amended the Criminal Law, imposing harsher penalties on criminals producing and selling unsafe foods. The amendment introduces the capital punishment as the maximum punishment for serious offenders and raises the minimum penalty for crimes related to the production and sale of tainted food from short-term criminal detention to prison terms of up to five years.

"This may be a big step forward, but how much safer our food can become depends on how seriously the law is enforced," said Li Hanjin, an NPC deputy. "One of the reasons for the frequent food safety scandals is the punishment is not strong enough to deter illegal deeds."

Wang Lijun, an NPC deputy and police chief of southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, proposed a law on food and drug safety, separate from the current Criminal Law and the Food Safety Law.

Jiang Jian, an NPC deputy and co-author of the motion, is president of a Shandong-based hospital. Jiang said better implementation of the Food Safety Law is "an arduous and long-term task" and requires efforts from all levels of governments.

The joint motion says there must be "heavy and specific penalties" for food safety crimes, which are lacking in the current regulations and laws.

SELF DISCIPLINE: A vendor cleans vegetables in a market in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (LI BIN)

Peng Jian, a criminal lawyer who represented clients in a tainted milk powder case, said food safety was related to local and industry interests, which made law enforcement relatively difficult.

"Melamine had been extensively used in the dairy industry for a long time, but the problem was exposed only after it made thousands of babies sick. It happened because people involved covered up each other's illegal activities," Peng said.

Peng also called for measures to ensure reasonable profits for farmers and reduce the role of the middlemen. He said middlemen always tried to keep purchasing prices for agricultural products down, which induced farmers to turn to illegal means to make money.

Food Safety Scandals (2000-11)

1. On December 15, 2000, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of Jinhua City, Zhejiang Province, confiscated 1,500 kg of sunflower seeds fried with tainted mineral oil. Later, food safety regulators in Fujian, Henan, Guangdong and Hainan provinces found similar contaminated sunflower seeds.

2. On September 3, 2001, more than 6,362 students from 16 schools in Jilin Province fell ill after drinking soymilk with excessive mineral contents.

3. In February 2002, Harbin Xiangxiangniao Food Co. in Heilongjiang Province was found to be using expired moon cake fillings to make rice dumplings. Some of the moon cake fillings had rotted or were damaged by rats.

4. On November 16, 2003, two companies in Jinhua City, Zhejiang Province, were found to add DDVP, a pesticide, while processing ham to protect the meat from mosquito contamination.

5. In April, 2004, more than 200 infants in Anhui Province were diagnosed to have a disease, which caused the infants' heads grow much bigger than normal ones. It was found that the substandard milk powder produced by a factory in Fuyang City, east China's Anhui Province, was the cause of the disease.

6. In July 2004, rice with mildew that contains flavacin was found in markets in more than 10 provinces and municipalities. Flavacin is a toxic chemical material that can cause cancer.

7. On March 15, 2005, Sudan 1, a carcinogenic food coloring, was found in spiced drumsticks, spiced chicken wings and strong chicken-flavored popcorn from KFC outlets in Shanghai. Later, Sudan 1 was found in food available in KFC outlets in other Chinese cities.

8. In July 2008, 16 infants in Gansu Province who had been fed milk powder produced by Sanlu Group based in Shijiazhuang, north China's Hebei Province, were diagnosed with kidney stones. By November 2008, the number of victims had exceeded 300,000, with six infants dying from kidney stones and other kidney damage. Melamine was the main cause of the kidney diseases. Milk powder produced by Sanlu Group was found to contain 2,563 mg of melamine per kg, while the allowable amount should be 15 mg.

9. In January 2010, a highly poisonous pesticide, isocarbophos, which had been banned from all use, was found in large stockpiles of cowpeas in south China's Hainan Province.

10. On March 15, 2011, Shuanghui Group, China's largest meat producer, and several other companies were found to have used pigs fed with toxic Clenbuterol for their products.

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