Said Zheng, the Renmin University professor: “It’s a long distance from the field to the mouth.”
In addition, experts said, despite a number of high-profile busts, the chances of getting caught and punished for producing or selling tainted food remains relatively small.
In many of the cases, particularly those involving pesticides and other chemicals, experts said the rural farmers often do not understand the harmful effects on humans. For example, the case of exploding watermelons in Jiangsu province in May was thought to be at least partially caused by farmers’ overuse of a plant growth accelerator called forchlorfenuron.
In Sichuan this year, police acting on a tip arrested a father and son whose company made xiewang, a local delicacy known as “bloody tofu” made of congealed duck or pig’s blood. The pair told police that they had been adding formaldehyde to their produce to make it smoother and extend its shelf life, according to local media reports. Formaldehyde can cause brain, colon and nose tumors in humans.
At times, the addition of dangerous chemicals is more malfeasance than ignorance.
A well-known Shanghai steam bun producer in April was found to be adding chemical sweeteners and yellow coloring to buns that were past their “sell by” date, repackaging them as new and re-selling them. Several managers at the bun company were arrested, and four Shanghai officials were disciplined for “dereliction of duty” for failing to detect the scam.
The most recent scandal with pigs involves an additive called clenbuterol, known as “lean meat powder,” used to burn fat and accelerate muscle-building in swine — creating what became known here as “bodybuilder pigs.” The substance was found in pigs in Henan province. The chemical can cause illness in humans if ingested through the pig’s meat.
Journalists in Anhui province also reported finding markets using a harmful food additive to change the appearance and taste of pork to make it seem like beef. A reporter used the additive, called “beef extract,” and found that it took just a few minutes to alter the taste. The markets were selling the “fake beef” for twice the cost of pork.
The sheer number of recent scandals has led many in China to question whether the country is facing a moral and ethical crisis as much as a food safety one — and why the push for slightly higher profits would prompt some people involved in the food chain to heedlessly endanger the health of humans. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have decried the lack of ethics among food producers.
Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.