First, a tainted product emerges, killing some and sickening many more. Its origin is traced to China, where a combination of greed and negligence allow the danger to slip into the food chain. The government downplays or ignores the risks. When the problem becomes so big it can't be denied, leadership orders inspections and promises to punish wrongdoers. The new vigilance leads to other risky products being identified, but officials suggest the problems aren't systemic — just the work of a few bad eggs. The state tightens inspections on imports and finds a few tainted products from overseas, as if to say, "See, everyone has problems with food safety."
That, in brief, could describe the Chinese Product Safety Scandal of 2008. As early as January, infants in China raised on Sanlu brand baby formula began developing kidney problems, and parents raised complaints that were ignored by company and local government officials. When the news finally broke in September, tests found four infants had died and more than 60,000 were sickened from formula tainted with melamine, a chemical used in plastics that can make the protein content of milk — and many other food products — appear higher, and, when consumed, can also cause kidney failure. Expanded inspections found traces of melamine in milk powder from 22 of the country's 109 producers. The substance also showed up in whole milk and dairy products ranging from White Rabbit candies to chocolate used in sex toys in the U.K.
In late October, the scope of the scandal broadened when Hong Kong authorities announced that eggs imported from the mainland also contained melamine, the result of tainted feed given to chickens. Beijing ordered widespread testing of animal feed, and discovered 3,600 tons of contaminated product. The country's agriculture minister, Sun Zhengcai, called the tainted eggs an isolated problem. And the state press trumpeted news that sauces tainted with toxic chemicals were imported from three Japanese factories.
Change some of the details above and you could have the Chinese Product Safety Scandal of 2007. That round was touched off when the death of more than 100 Panamanians was traced back to cough medicine tainted with dietheylene glycol from China. Then hundreds of pets in North America were killed by eating food made from Chinese raw ingredients, also tainted with melamine. As last year's scandal spread, problems were found with Chinese-produced toys, tires, seafood and toothpaste. Even as the Beijing took extreme steps to solve the problem, such as executing Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, for accepting $850,000 in bribes from drug companies, it aggressively pushed back against the global concern over its exports. The Chinese embassy in Washington declared that it was "unacceptable for some to launch groundless smear attacks on China" over food and drug safety problems.
A year later, that foreign criticism of China's food safety problems doesn't seem so groundless. Now Chinese consumers are asking why the government can't seem to get control of a problem like toxic foods, or even a specific contaminant like melamine that has now become painfully common. "Everyone has asked why this country that can send an astronaut into space and have the most successful Olympic Games cannot provide safe milk to its own children," says Dali Yang, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago. While Yang acknowledges that ethical failures in the Chinese dairy industry led to the current crisis, the ultimate blame still falls on the government. "Fundamentally it is an issue of government responsibility. In any society you can hope everyone acts with good intentions, but you cannot trust them to always do that," he says. " The greatest irony is that with all the international criticism last year, they knew there were problems. They did some spot checks, but the bureaucratic system didn't pick this up as a significant issue."
It is the spotty nature of the enforcement mechanism that is causing the biggest headaches. The discovery last year of melamine in Chinese-made wheat gluten that was used in pet food was a signal that it had permeated other links of the food chain, says Marion Nestle, a public health professor at New York University and author of the recent book "Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine." Once melamine showed up in pet food supplies, Nestle says, it was likely that it would appear in animal feed and eventually human food. "You can't separate the food supplies of animals, pets and people," she says. "That's an enormous warning sign that if something wasn't done immediately to clean up the food safety problem, this would leak into the human food supply."
While some quick action was taken after last year's pet food scandals, the response was narrowly focused on the exposed cases. The country's top watchdog revoked the business licenses for two companies that produced adulterated wheat gluten blamed for the death of thousands of pets in North America and another that shipped the diethylene glycol used in cough medicine that killed more than 100 Panamanians."While China's State Council announced new rules for stricter controls on food producers and tougher punishments for violators, poor oversight allowed producers to adulterate dairy products and animal feed with melamine until the latest scandal broke in September. And that means that after the livestock feed recall, the list of tainted products is likely to grow. "If animals are fed this stuff, then they have it in their meat," says Nestle. While Beijing has announced expanded testing procedures for the dairy industry, cracked down on melamine producers and begun investigating animal feed, it has yet to announce similar measures to test meat and eggs.
If there is one upside to the latest product scandals, says Yang, it's that companies learn the risk of selling harmful products. Not only could their businesses be destroyed, but they can face harsh criminal punishments. "This takes more time. There are still a lot of problems, but grudgingly progress is being made as different stakeholders are learning the hard way." If those lessons don't sink in, then expect a Chinese Product Safety Scandal of 2009.