NPR

Inspection in China Finds 23,000 Cases of Bad Food

A nationwide inspection of China's food industry has uncovered 23,000 cases of tainted or expired food.

Some 180 factories were closed following the inspection by China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.

The findings will likely add to a sense of unease about Chinese products, both inside China and abroad.

Melissa Block talks with Louisa Lim.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

There are more alarming headlines from China today about food safety in that country. A Chinese government investigation uncovered 23,000 cases of tainted and substandard food in just six months. This has led to the closure of some 180 factories. But it will be tough to reassure consumers about the safety of Chinese products, given recent news over tainted Chinese imports to the U.S.

NPR's Shanghai correspondent Louisa Lim joins us now. And Louisa, what did the inspections find in terms of food safety?

LOUISA LIM: Well, the inspections found that all these food stuff had been tainted with all manner of industrial raw materials including dyes, mineral oils, paraffin wax, formaldehyde, and even carcinogenic materials like malachite green, and these were used in the production of all types of very common food stuff - things like flour, pickles, biscuits, candy, melon seeds, bean curd and sea food.

And what's also alarming is that a government official actually admitted that these are not isolated cases. So it does seem that the problem is quite widespread and there are also talks about the problems that many of these foods came from very small, unlicensed food processing plants employing less than 10 people. And that sort of thing means that it is quite difficult to police food safety.

BLOCK: What kind of reaction has there been to this news from Chinese consumers?

LIM: Well, Chinese consumers are - it's sad to say - quite hardened to this social scandal. I mean, over the last few years, we have seen just one controversy after another over substandard foodstuffs. We saw duck eggs, which were contaminated with industrial dye. We saw turbot fish containing carcinogenic residues. We even saw a scandal over fake eggs, which, you know, it's surprising that anyone would bother to fake eggs, but in China there was a scandal over fake eggs. And the most...

BLOCK: Fake eggs?

LIM: Fake eggs. But the most shocking case of all came in 2005 when there was a fake baby milk scandal and 13 babies died after drinking this baby milk, which later turned out to have no nutritional value at all. So Chinese consumers are very fed up.

BLOCK: Louisa, is there any way to figure out how much of this contaminated food is for export, it's making its way to the U.S. or to other countries?

LIM: It's very difficult to know exactly how much. I mean, the fact that these products came from small, unlicensed factories in the main does indicate they maybe for domestic consumption. But we do know that hazardous products have made their way to the American market in the past. And just in recent weeks, we've seen scandals over toothpaste contaminated with hazardous chemicals and toys covered with lead paint.

BLOCK: Apart from closing these factories in question, is China working on any broader system of ensuring food safety?

LIM: Well, China is now trying to show that it's cleaning up its act, and we've even seen some quite unusual criticism from the state-run media, the China Daily criticized food safety regulators. We've also seen news from the government such as their former head of the Food and Drugs Safety Administration was given the death sentence for corruption and accepting bribes.

And I think that's just another sign of how this scandal is yet another side effect of this rampant, unchecked, unregulated growth that China has seen for the past three decades. But I think the Chinese government is now realizing that they must try to show that they are acting, and Chinese products will not find markets overseas unless more is done to guarantee the safety of Chinese products.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Louisa Lim in Shanghai. Louisa, thanks a lot.

LIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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