Rat or lamb? More outrage in China

  • Article by: CHRIS BUCKLEY
  • New York Times
  • May 3, 2013 - 6:56 PM

– Even for ­China’s scandal-numbed diners, news that the lamb simmering in the pot may actually be rat took the country’s ­outrages about food hazards into a new realm of disgust.

In an announcement intended to show that the government is serious about improving food safety, the ­Ministry of Public Security said via the Internet on Thursday that police had caught traders in eastern China who bought rat, fox and mink flesh and sold it as mutton. But that and other cases of meat smuggling, faking and adulteration also featured in Chinese newspapers and websites Friday were unlikely to instill confidence in consumers already queasy over many reports about meat, fruit and vegetables laden with disease, toxins, banned dyes and preservatives.

Sixty-three people were arrested and accused of “buying fox, mink and rat and other meat products that had not undergone inspection,” which they doused in gelatin, red pigment, and nitrates, and sold as mutton in Shanghai and adjacent Jiangsu Province for about $1.6 million, according to the ministry’s statement. Not explained: How the traders acquired the creatures.

“How many rats does it take to put together a sheep?” said one typically baffled and angry user of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog service that often acts as a forum for public venting. “Is it cheaper to raise rats than sheep? Or does it just not feel right unless you’re making fakes?”

Residents of Shanghai recently endured the sight of thousands of dead hogs floating down a nearby river, apparently the dumped victims of disease from piggeries upstream.

China’s prime minister since March, Li Keqiang, has said that improving food safety was a high priority — one of the grievances of ordinary citizens that he has said his government would tackle. But similar vows by his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, ran up against inadequate resources, buck-passing and muddle among rival agencies, and protectionism by local officials, said Mao Shoulong, a professor of public policy at Renmin University in Beijing.

“The United States and Europe can’t eradicate these problems, either, but they are even more complicated in China,” said Mao, who has studied food and pharmaceutical safety regulation.

“Chinese food production has become larger-scale and more technological, but the problems emerging also involve using more sophisticated technology to beat regulators and cheat consumers,” he said. “The government’s efforts need to catch up with the scale and complexity of the problems.”

Many consumers have recently stopped buying chicken and duck out of ­worries about avian flu.

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