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 Getting to Zero AIDS Infections

More than 35 million people around the world are infected with HIV, a disease that is both preventable and treatable

Children, Childhoods Lost in European Refugee Crisis

According to UNICEF, 190,000 children applied for political asylum in Europe in the first 9 months of this year - twice as many as last year

What Happened When I Landed in Antarctica

Refael Klein chronicles what it's like to visit one of the coldest, most desolate places on Earth

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.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

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 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.

VOA Blogs