Greasing the wheels

China needs to put its food safety administration in order or suffer the high costs of disease and dissatisfaction

Greasing the wheels

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Midnight snackers on the streets of Shanghai often turn a blind eye to roadside food vendors who baste slices of pork and tofu with oil from unmarked tin cans. The nature of the oil is ambiguous: It may have been poured directly from a healthy bottle of soya or peanut oil, or it could have been ladled from the bottom of a garbage bin. Recent news reports suggest the latter is more likely.

Much of what goes onto meat skewers or into woks in China is digouyou, which roughly means “gutter oil.” Immoral alchemists fish sewage or restaurant rubbish from gutters and boil it down out of sight to make a liquid that is passed off as cooking oil.

Gutter oil can take on a red hue, yet to the naked eye it is often indistinguishable from normal oil. The differences become clearer under a microscope, where the high level of carcinogens and toxic chemicals can be detected. Still, Chinese media report that the illegal oil often passes safety inspection tests.

The most troubling part of the gutter oil saga is the seeping of this cancer-causing concoction into Chinese households. During a recent crackdown in Shandong province, police caught the owner of a digouyou operation selling much of the 60 tons of gutter oil he produced daily into the distribution lines of respected oil brands.

Chinese people eat up to 300 tons of gutter oil per year, according to a 2010 report from a professor at Wuhan Institute of Food Science and Engineering. That's about 2.3 million four-liter bottles of the inedible oil entering the Chinese digestive tract every day. “You've certainly eaten gutter oil,” the professor told China Youth Daily reporters in 2010.

The blame game

If only gutter oil was the worst of China's gastronomic perils. The Chinese media has been awash in food scandals for more than a decade. The most infamous example is dairy company Sanlu’s poisonous baby formula, which killed six children and put more than 100,000 in the hospital. The government sentenced two of the company's executives to death.

More recently, state media exposed a case of reportedly tainted chicken at a distributor for Yum, the global fast food company that owns KFC (the company also supplied McDonald’s, though that was excluded from the report). Antibiotic levels in the chicken had exceeded regulatory limits, according to a CCTV news report. Domestic media, most notably Global Times Editor Hu Xuejin, ranted about the company’s negligence. Safety regulators in Shanghai and Beijing vowed in late December to blacklist any companies caught using illegal substances in food products.

The regulators’ pledge was another after-the-fact reaction and seemed to say that unsafe companies had been free to operate in the past. Media responses to the scandal were misguided too, at least to the extent that they ignored the shortcomings of China's food safety regulators.

“The media doesn't have the courage to blame the government, but it's easy to blame the companies,” said Wu Heng, a former Fudan University student who started a website, www.zccw.info, that tracks China's food crises in 2011. Wu launched the site after hearing about a meat scandal in which a company manufactured beef from chemicals and pork scraps. After corresponding with food safety officials in Shanghai about the scandal, Wu said the regulatory system is so complex he doesn't know who to blame.

The confusion is understandable, said Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank based in Washington, DC. The process of China's food safety regulation is convoluted, allowing the government to deflect responsibility.

For example, China's Ministry of Agriculture regulates the safety of processed agricultural products. However, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine oversees the safety of all processed goods and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce is responsible for the safe distribution of processed goods. Add to the mix the Ministry of Health, the State Food and Drug Administration, the Ministry of Commerce, and the National Administration of Nutrition and Food Safety, all of which answer to China's central decision-making body, the State Council, and accountability is all but lost.

“They are all at the same horizontal level. They have a 'buck-passing policy' where each administration routinely denies the responsibility for mistakes,” Huang said. Much of the splicing in authority surprisingly occurred after the Sanlu milk scandal, he added, making placing the blame increasingly difficult.

The fourth represent

The government and the Chinese media cannot pin companies with full responsibility for food scandals forever. Chinese such as Wu Heng are becoming more aware of the toll rapid development is taking on the country's health. Rage among ordinary Chinese spilled over recently in cities such as Ningbo and Dalian when officials announced construction plans for potentially hazardous factories. Beijing residents complained loudly in January about a smog scare that covered the capital in one of the worst blankets of pollution ever recorded.

If the headlines of the next food scandal don't channel China's anger toward negligent officials, a looming health crisis surely will. The government will be hard pressed to pawn off on companies the increasing rate of non-communicable illness attributed to pollution and low food quality. Such disease is set to triple in Chinese people over 40 during the next two decades, according to a World Bank and World Health Organization report from 2011.

Perhaps the most puzzling factor of China's food crisis is the government’s sheepish approach to solving problems – especially at a time when the Communist Party is scrapping for legitimacy. Improving food safety is a safe bet for central officials who fear the risks associated with other reforms such as inner-party democracy or flat out disclosure of their net worth. Under an ideology that insists the party represent progress and culture, it's unwise for the government to shirk responsibility for the basic health of the people.

To help resolve China’s persistent food quality problems, Beijing should centralize regulation while boosting incentives and punishments for local regulators. It should raise wages for effective local officials, thereby reducing the inducement for graft that often accounts for official negligence. Only a well structured regulatory system will have the power to return confidence to such a flagging industry.

Time is of the essence. The recent gutter oil bust in Shandong province stands as a reminder of how common the problem has become in China. The independent news agency Caixin said the factory was one of five in Pingyin, a county of about 400,000 people, suggesting that gutter oil makers are lurking closer than one would expect.