News / Asia

US, Chinese Officials Discuss Food Safety

An employee at a workshop of a ham-processing factory in Jinhua, Zhejiang province April 10, 2011.
An employee at a workshop of a ham-processing factory in Jinhua, Zhejiang province April 10, 2011.
Stephanie Ho

Newspapers in China these days are filled with horror stories of egregious food safety violations, which are prompting Chinese people to be more aware of the food they eat.  The issue is also of concern to Americans, who are eating more food imported from China. 

Wu Heng, a 25-year-old Chinese university student in Shanghai, became so fed up with what has seemed like a neverending stream of food safety scandals that in June, he started a website that collects and summarizes reports on food safety issues.

Wu says he was spurred into action after reading a report about fake beef - which was basically cheaper pork dressed up with additives to look like more expensive beef.   He was shocked and angry to realize that he was among those who had consumed fake beef.

The website has so far documented more than 2,000 food safety cases, culled from the Internet and Chinese media.  Wu says the data show the number of food safety violations decreased from 2008 to 2010, but started increasing again this year.

Powdered milk scandal

Food safety incidents in China

  • 2008: Six babies are killed and 300,000 others sickened after drinking milk formula contaminated with an industrial chemical
    Dumplings are discovered tainted with an insecticide

  • 2010: Food sciences professor exposes recycled cooking oil taken from sewers outside restaurants
    Green beans are found to be tainted with a pesticide

  • 2011: 'Exploding' watermelons in eastern Jiangsu province are blamed on overuse of growth hormones
    Hundreds are sickened in April after eating pork tainted with the steroid clenbuterol
    Pork is contaminated with phosphorescent bacteria that causes meat to emit a blue light
    Eleven people die and at least 120 are sickened after consuming vinegar tainted with anti-freeze

China's problems with food safety were catapulted to national headlines in 2008, when milk powder tainted with the industrial chemical melamine led to the deaths of six babies and sickened hundreds of thousands of others.

Qiu Baochang, a lawyer with the China Consumers Association, a government-funded organization that was established in late 1984, acknowledges there have been a host of food safety problems. He cites chemicals added to old mantou buns to make them seem fresh, and a scandal involving restaurants that re-used dirty and sometimes toxic cooking oil.

Qiu says the government is paying great attention to the issue and the public tends to exaggerate the problem.

Qiu thinks food safety in China is much better than five years ago, but says many people feel the situation is much worse because of the Internet - which can spread stories quickly.  He says the Internet stories are not always factual and make things seem worse than they really are, which, in his words, could create public terror.

US response

Other countries are responding to concerns about the safety of the global food trade with new legislation. Earlier this year, the United States enacted the Food Safety Modernization Act, which requires food importers verify the safety of the food that increasingly comes from overseas suppliers.

“We have had global tripling in the last decade of import entries of food coming into this country, and China has certainly been a big part of that,” explained Michael Taylor, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for foods.

This month, Taylor and his colleagues held meetings in Beijing with their Chinese counterparts on food safety issues.  He says the main goal was to explain the Food Safety Modernization Act’s new rules, and seek comment from Chinese government and industry.

“Beginning after the first of next year, we expect substantial comments from the Chinese perspective, on the rule and what the rule should be,” Taylor said.

As U.S. food imports grow, so do the challenges for maintaining food safety.

Additional measures

Murray Lumpkin, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's representative for global issues, says his agency stationed its first employee overseas only three years ago.

“FDA is not like some of the other agencies within the U.S. government that have a long history of placing staff overseas.  This is really quite new for us," Lumpkin said.  "And we are, fundamentally, a domestic consumer protection agency.  What gets us involved outside of the U.S., as you have been hearing, is that so many of the products for which we are responsible in the United States now come from outside the United States.”

One of the largest exporters of food products to the United States, China has indicated it is willing to work with other countries on safety.  

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei calls food import and export a major part of business cooperation. He says China believes food safety is important to enhancing bilateral cooperation and normal relations.

As an increasing volume of food products move from China to the United States, there are also American ideas about food safety making their way to China. Student Wu Heng says one basic food safety inspiration for him came from one of the first exposes of American food safety problems.

Wu says he was inspired by American writer Upton Sinclair, whose book The Jungle describes the meat packing industry in Chicago more than 100 years ago.

The Chinese student recounts a story in which then U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt was said to be reading The Jungle while he was eating breakfast at the White House. When he read about the book’s description of horrible working conditions and unsanitary food preparations, he is reported to have screamed and thrown his food out the window.

Whether or not the events actually happened this way, the incident is immortalized in the title for Wu’s website: “Throw It Out the Window.”

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs