Chinese Food Market Sinks to an All Time Low After Milk Product Scandal

by Hannah Punitha on November 18, 2008 at 4:25 PM
 Chinese Food Market Sinks to an All Time Low After Milk Product Scandal

In China's supermarkets, an apparent shift is taking place that suggests one of the legacies of the nation's contaminated milk scandal is that consumers are caring more about what goes into the food they buy.

A saleswoman in a yellow hat and blue apron calls out brightly to shoppers across the Shanghai supermarket aisle: "No preservatives! No MSG!"


"The more you can convince them your product is free of additives, the better sales you can get," 20-year-old Chen Xiuyin explains as she serves chicken soup samples.

Confidence in Chinese-made foods sank to an all-time low this year after milk products containing melamine, which is used to make plastic but can also make protein content seem higher, killed four children and hospitalised 53,000.

But even if Chinese consumers now want to know more about what is in their food, information can be limited and varies hugely between brands. Experts warn hidden contaminants remain a major problem for Chinese shoppers.

Before the milk scandal, there were already widely publicised stories about melamine being added to pet food, pigs being pumped full of steroids and enormous amounts of antibiotics given to fish farmed in filthy water.

Shanghai retiree Shen Xiaodi said checking ingredients had become more important to him than brand or flavour since the milk scandal, but he was often left confused by the labels and lack of information.

"All I know is that preservatives and antibiotics are no good, and if the product has less man-made ingredients, it must be safer," said Shen, 67, as he peered through his reading glasses at a carton of strawberry-flavoured milk.

"Eight percent fresh milk, so what's the rest?"

Schoolteacher Jin Jiayu shared similar concerns as he studied smoked ham packages. Despite different prices, most ingredients were the same.

None specified the percentage of real meat or the additives' purpose, Jin complained.

"I'm not a chemist. How can I figure out what 'compound additives' means?" Jin said, shaking his head. "Price is the only way I can tell the difference. I guess the expensive one is always better."

China introduced new food laws in September requiring that ingredient lists be clear and factual, but crucially it did not specify that everything had to be put on the label.

"That's one path leading to the adulteration of food in China. Some dealers are hiding the ingredients to avoid supervision," said Chen Lianfang, a Beijing-based food industry analyst for Orient Agribusiness Consultant.

Rao Pingfan, an internationally respected food scientist, said another major problem was that small manufacturers, many of whom lack safety training, dominated China's food industry.

"Illegal dealers use cheap substitutes with low nutritional value, you can see the greediness in their eyes. Total ignorance makes them fearless," said Rao, who teaches at Fuzhou University.

Rao said the milk crisis proved an absence of standards and enforcement was a huge problem throughout the food industry.

"Fraud and corruption often thwart the effectiveness of legislation and government supervision," Rao said. "Milk companies knew money could buy them exemptions from quality checks."

Highlighting the widespread problems with corruption, the former head of China's State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed last year for taking bribes in exchange for product safety licences.

More scandals will follow unless Beijing toughens penalties and enforcement, said David Gong, head of the technical department at a Shenzhen-based food company.

"This is just the tip of an iceberg," Gong said.

Source: AFP
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