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From deadly powdered milk to poisonous sunflower seeds
How many foods can we still eat without worry?
Zeng Renquan
6/15/2004

The news media have recently disclosed the appalling news that some sunflower seeds were roasted with industrial-grade chemicals and can be detrimental to the human health. This, coupled with the discovery of large amounts of substandard powdered milk, which killed dozens of infants, sent shockwaves across the nation and left people wondering what’s coming next.

According to most "official" state-run Chinese Central Television reports, the “fragrant and delicious” sunflower seeds put out by the largest producer at Taiping market in Bengfu City of Anhui Province contain potassium alum, the industry’s salt, talcum powder and an industry paraffin wax along with other processing agents. The aluminum in the sunflower seeds is as much as 13 times that in daily tap water. Expert analysis has pointed out that aluminum is usually absorbed through the intestine and stomach and then deposited in the body, but, in excess, it can harm organ function. The early symptoms include weakness, depression, anxiety and memory loss. When it is serious, it can cause kidney failure, uremia, dementia, and even Parkinson’s Disease if excessive amounts are deposited in the brain.

Only recently has the public become aware that the food they eat could be inferior, if not lethal. They have learned about water-instilled pork and beef which boosts meat poundage, polished rice, virulent ham, contaminated beverages, and more recently the discovery of soy sauce containing human hair. They have learned about more dangerous products: from deadly powdered milk to poisoned noodles and sunflower seeds. It seems that every food producer has found ways to cheat the public.

Can the public trust the food industry in general? Not all food has undergone quality testing from the Food Safety Department. Until the food is deemed safe, people can only continue to eat products that they "assume are clean as long as [our] eyes do not see the dirt."

With our strides toward economic reform, why have more inferior products appeared? From dangerous food to substandard clothing, from dangerous drugs to inferior electronic products, the Chinese people suffer time and again. Despite government controls, why do these things continue to happen? Why are these factories allowed a market in which to flourish?

The bottom line is that government control only touches the surface, but does not remove the root of the problem: local special interest groups and producers of inferior products act in collusion, and law enforcement share common interests with profiteering businesses and so secretly support them, acting as protective umbrellas.

China can no longer deny that is has become a nation known for producing and selling substandard products. The problem is already beyond the control of the existing management system. China’s “specialty” in inferior products called forth consumer advocates such as Wang Hai, famous for exposing counterfeit products. I once wrote about the difficulty in exposing inferior products in an article entitled, “Praise to our Hero who Attacks Inferior Products and Protects Consumers’ Rights” (Yi Bao, issue 142). But given their formidable opponents, Wang Hai and others have not been able fight the makers and sellers of substandard products, principally due to protection the culprits receive from local law enforcement and government agencies.

After the column reporting the lethal powdered milk event appeared, Premier Wen Jiabao personally made written comments in late April, saying he wanted to "seriously investigate the personnel responsible" and punish the criminals through legal channels.

Yet as I write in my forthcoming article "What Did Wen Jiabao’s Order to Investigate the Powdered Milk Incident Really Mean?" (to appear in Trend magazine on June 15), Premier Wen Jiabao's written comments to undertake "the investigation of ‘deadly powdered milk' is indisputably good, but questions remain: how many problems can be solved by this kind of piecemeal approach where the comments are oriented to a single case? What if tomorrow we read about 'the case of poisonous bread flour,' and the day after we see 'the toxic rice,' and then 'the lethal soy sauce,' will Premier Wen handle each case one by one?"

Even before this article in Trend officially hits the stands, we read about the case of the virulent sunflower seeds. Is this recurring problem of virulent food production China’s misfortune or a problem involving the whole system?


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