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Product Safety Scandals Reported in China

While American consumers may have been alarmed by the magnitude of the quality of food made in China , mainland Chinese have been facing them on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, “fake, counterfeit, and sub-standard products” problems have been plaguing Chinese consumers for years, and the problem is only getting worse. Even in China’s official media, often quite conservative in reporting negative news, one can easily spot reports regarding gross food safety violations and horrifying incidents.

Since Menu Foods in the United States first announced on March 16, 2007, the recall for cat and dog food products imported from China that were later linked to the deaths of pets due to contamination with melamine in the vegetable protein, a veritable flood of unsafe China-made products have been discovered. In late April and early May, FDA inspectors found many problematic Chinese imports that included frozen catfish contaminated with illegal drugs, ginger tainted with pesticides, dried dates that were filthy, and melon seeds that had been polluted with a carcinogenic toxin.

Then, in June 2007, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of 1.5 million China-made Thomas & Friends wooden railway vehicles due to lead paint, followed by other massive recalls of 9.5 million China-made toys in the United States and 11 million in foreign countries due to hazardous magnets or paint with lead in it.

The exposure of such problems in the Western media caused widespread health concerns about China-made products around the globe. But it’s not the first time Chinese products have been linked to massive health problems. In 1988, at least 88 children in Haiti died due to diethylene glycol-laced medicine. In 1995, 50 tons of the counterfeit Chinese glycerin were shipped to the United States. Fortunately, the deception was discovered before it found its way into products.

While American consumers may have been alarmed by the magnitude of the problems, mainland Chinese have been facing them on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, “fake, counterfeit, and sub-standard products” problems have been plaguing Chinese consumers for years, and the problem is only getting worse. Even in China’s official media, often quite conservative in reporting negative news, one can easily spot reports regarding gross food safety violations and horrifying incidents. Following are some examples of incidents and safety scandals in China reported by China’s state media in recent years.

Returned and Expired Milk Reprocessed for Sale

“Bright-Pure Milk” is a famous brand name of fresh milk in China. A 2005 Xinhiua report, [1] however, found that the “fresh milk” was actually mixed with returned and expired milk. The report described: “At the facility located in Zhengzhou City in Henan Province, thousands of returned and expired ‘Bright-Pure Milk’ boxes were piled up outside and exposed to the sun. Some of the boxes had been badly damaged and there were flies all over them. The spoiled milk is processed into the production line again.”

“…The workers are working. When returned ‘Bright-Pure Milk’ is unpacked, the whole room is immediately awash in an unbearable stench. Workers have to rinse the soft milk bags repeatedly in running water. A factory manager told the workers that all the spoiled ones, without exception, had to be used.

“This processing was carried out without any method of sterilization. The spoiled, maggot-infested contents of many of the soft milk bags was thrown into the milk barrels when the bags were opened. Drowned flies were visible in the milk containers.”

The report estimated that 10 percent of all “Bright-Pure Milk” bags are bags that were returned with spoiled milk in them.

Poisonous Rice Incident

Rice is the primary staple for Chinese people, much like bread in Western countries. Any news about rice is big news in China.

According to a CCTV report, at the end of year 2000, the “poisonous rice incident” shocked the nation. From Shandong Province, 50 tons of rice treated with industrial white wax oil to make it more attractive in appearance were sold in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, and several other cities. In addition, toxic mineral oil was used in the polishing process to make the decade-old rice look fresh. According to experts, the industrial white wax oil and mineral oil could endanger people’s lives once consumed. [2]

This is not an isolated case, but only a few may have gotten caught. “Harmful old rice sold on market” was reported in Sohu news article in 2003. [3]

And another 2006 Reuters report quoted the State-run China Central Television that reported, “China firm sells 17-year-old rice as new.” [4]

Fake Baby Formula Caused 13 Infant Deaths and 171 Babies Suffering from Malnutrition

In April 2004, at least 13 babies in Fuyang, Anhui Province, and 50-60 more in the rural areas of the province died of malnourishment from ingesting the fake powdered formula, while another 100-200 babies suffered malnutrition but survived. When the fake formulas were tested, they were only 1-6 percent protein while the national requirement is 10 percent protein. [5]

According to Chinese doctors, the babies suffered from “big-head disease.” When babies are fed with the formula for a while, their heads swell while their bodies become thinner due to nutritional deficiency.

Although banned in Fuyang, inferior infant powdered formula is still sold in some rural areas of the city, China Central Television (CCTV) reported.

Ham Soaked with Pesticide DDVP

Jinhua, a city in Zhejiang Province, has been famous for its ham for more than 1,200 years. Its delicious taste has even won it a good reputation abroad. However, to keep flies away from the ham and to keep the ham fresh has been a big challenge. Never mind, there is a cheap and easy way—soak it in DDVP (dichlorvos) pesticide. On November 16, 2003, the CCTV reported that some manufacturers soaked pork in the highly toxic pesticide DDVP (dichlorvos) during the production of Jinhua ham. [6]

Such strategy has also been copied in the preservation of vegetables. In June 2004, the Chengdu Quality Inspection Department found that only about 23 percent of all pickled vegetables produced in Chengdu had an acceptable amount of chemical additives. In Sichuan, the factories were using industrial-grade salt to pickle vegetables and spraying pesticides containing DDVP on the pickled vegetables before shipment. [7]

Pork Containing “Lean Meat Powder” (Clenbuterol)

Pork is the staple meat in China. Farmers in east China, in order to produce leaner pork, used Clenbuterol, a product normally marketed to fitness fanatics. The chemical can reportedly cause damage to the human nervous and cardiovascular system. Incidents of food poisoning from eating pork containing “lean meat powder” (clenbuterol) are growing in China. An AFP report on September 19, 2006, says over 330 Shanghai residents have been poisoned by pork tainted with a weight-loss steroid popular among bodybuilders. Most of the have pigs been traced to neighboring Zhejiang, where rearing pigs on clenbuterol, known locally as “lean meat powder,” is widespread. [8]

More examples of such incidents: [9]

On May 15, 2001, 24 policemen in a Shanghai police station were poisoned by pork meat at a group dinner right before an urgent special activity. Many of those affected had symptoms such as trembling hands, weakened feet, and faster heartbeats. The special activity had to be cancelled because of the incident, as reported in an army medical journal.

On August 26, 2001, 530 people in Guangdong were poisoned by pork tainted with “lean meat powder.”

On July 2, 2002, 80 People’s Liberation Army soldiers were poisoned by pork containing “lean meat powder.”

On March 14, 2004, about 100 people in Fushan City, Guangdong Province, were hospitalized due to pork tainted with “lean meat powder.”

Chinese authorities seem to recognize the severity of the problem. To ensure meat safety during the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese Olympic Organization Committee designated special facilities to raises pigs solely for the pork to be supplied to the athletes.

Soy Sauce Made from Human Hair

In late 2003, a special soy sauce called “Hongshuai Soy Sauce” appeared in the marketplace in China. The soy sauce is not produced in a traditional way using soy and wheat. It was marketed as “blended using the latest bioengineering technology” by a food seasoning manufacturer. Because it was sold at a relatively lower price in mainland China, it became very popular among the public. [10]

An investigative report that aired on CCTV revealed how the soy sauce is made. It is manufactured from an amino acid powder (or syrup) bought from a manufacturer in Hubei Province. When asked what the amino acid syrup (or powder) was made from, the manufacturer replied that the substance was generated from human hair. Because the human hair was gathered from salons, barbershops, and hospitals around the country, it was unhygienic and sometimes mixed with condoms, used hospital bandages, and other waste. After being filtered by the employees, the hair is cut into small pieces and then processed into amino acid syrup. The company sells several hundred tons of the amino acid each month.

Chinese soy sauce made from human hair caused concern in Japan. An article published by Mainichi Daily News said, “’Chinese soy sauce made from human hair is cancer causing, and restaurants throughout Japan could be using it,’ screams Asahi Geino.”

“From January to September last year, 653 tons of soy sauce were imported from China. Chinese restaurants make up the bulk of places in Japan that use Chinese soy sauce. Human hair makes an alternative to soybeans because it contains the amino acids that give the sauce its flavor. Some say Chinese soy sauce makers who use hair as an ingredient are posing a cancer risk because of the powerful chemicals they use to extract the amino acids from human hair.” [11]

Fake (Artificial) Chicken Eggs

Eggs are not only a delicious food, but also a major source of protein. In China, the consumption of eggs is probably second only to pork. As hard as it is to believe, eggs can also be counterfeited. They are almost indistinguishable from real ones if not checked carefully. According to media reports, fake eggs can be produced artificially from chemicals and have been sold in supermarkets across China. [12]

Fake eggshell is made of calcium carbonate, and egg yolk and egg white are made of sodium alginate, alum, gelatin, calcium chloride, with water and pigment added. First, put the correct amount of sodium alginate into a bowl of warm water, stir until it becomes protein-like, mix it thoroughly with gelatin and add the acid, alum, and other chemicals. Lemon yellow pigment is added for egg yolks. The eggshell is made with paraffin, gypsum powder, calcium carbonate, etc.

Fake eggs do not have the flavor of real eggs. A study says that long-term consumption may cause memory loss and dementia. The cost of a fake egg is 5 to 10 cents, about 20 cents cheaper than a real egg.

Counterfeit Liquor

Counterfeit liquor is one of the most commonly counterfeited products in China, from famous brand names to the low-priced liquors usually consumed by poor people. In many instances, industrial alcohol is directly blended into the liquor and sold to consumers, causing serious physical injury and sometimes fatal incidents. In most instances, the incidents never get to the media.

One example of an incident reported in the media: “In May 2004, nine people died from drinking liquor blended with industrial alcohol in Guangzhou, the capital of South China’s Guangdong Province. Another 33 are hospitalized.” [13]

Since liquor is such a lucrative business, local government sometimes protects counterfeit liquor production. In January 2005, in the small village of Handu, Jiangsu Province, 108 instances of counterfeit liquor were discovered. There were 31 manufacturers with 76 underground storage locations and 10 distributors. Such massive production was under the protection of local authorities. The village is now called Counterfeit Liquor Village. [14]

Medical Waste Turned into Beverage Bottles and Winter Coats

Yi Village of Wenan County Plastics Exchange Market is the largest waste plastics market in northern China. Northeast China’s (including Beijing’s) medical waste was shipped to local the plastic products factory as raw material. In an investigation, the reporter from CCTV saw transfusion tubes, plasma bags, even plastic syringes, and other medical waste in the plastic processing plant. Through processing, the medical waste was turned into disposable cups, buckets, and barrels, vases, and various food and beverage containers. [15]

The Yulin region in the northern part of Shanxi Province is famous for manufacturing winter coats. In 2003, CCTV reported that medical waste cotton was used in padding coats to lower the cost. It is hard to detect the type of filling used in the coat from its appearance. This practice is common among dozens of winter coat plants in the region. [16]

Fake Medicine

Fake substitutes are not only used in food products, they are also mixed into medicines. A recent case involves fake additives being used in the production of Armillarisin A, an antibiotic for the treatment of hepato-biliary diseases, by Qiqihaer No. 2 Pharmaceuticals. In the liquid form of Armillarisin, glycol was normally used as a solvent. The company used Diethylene glycol instead of glycerin. Diethylene glycol is a poisonous industrial solvent and antifreeze ingredient, often used in pesticide production. The company paid about 6,000 yuan per ton for diethylene glycol while glycerin would normally cost 17,000 yuan per ton. An urgent recall was issued in May 2006 throughout China after patients using the medicine developed acute kidney failure and five died. [17]

Counterfeit medicine, like other fake products, is rampant in China. Below are more quotes from media reports:

CCTV: Authorities have closed down a factory that was making birth control pills out of starch and glucose. Tests by the Food and Drug administration on Hainan found not only that the pills were useless in preventing pregnancy but also contained toxic ingredients. [18]

IHT: In July 2006, six people died and 80 more became sick after ingesting an antibiotic with disinfectant as an ingredient. [19]

Zaobao: China found counterfeit diabetes drugs that damage the liver and kidneys. [20]

BBC: According to John Newton of Interpol, Chinese organized crime is involved in working across national boundaries and faking drugs on an industrial scale, now appearing throughout Africa. [21]

CCTV: Eighteen big hospitals in northeastern China using “fake human plasma albumin” [22]

CCTV: Fake rabies vaccine made of saline 2004-2007, many places in China [23]

Sina: July 2007, China busts fake drug ring. Sixty-seven types of fake drugs are produced by 53 companies, including vaccines against rabies and blood protein used to treat patients during surgery, sold in Heilongjiang Province. [24]

51ZY: Fake drugs became a major industry in Jingjiang City, Fujin Province [25]

[9] )

Appendix: Fifty-Five Kinds of Tainted Food Found in China

A report has surfaced and been widely reprinted on official Chinese websites and Blogs that 55 kinds of tainted food have been identified in five categories of common foodstuffs in China. They range from daily food items such as rice, flour, vegetables, meat, eggs, and fruits to famous seasonings, spices, and other products. [1, 2] Vegetables laced with toxic residual pesticides have been labeled as “harmless” and widely sold.

A. Rice, flour, and manufactured food

1. Rice with a high level of carcinogens (old rice, rice for peasant workers) and manufactured food made of such rice. Eating such rice can lead to nausea, vomiting, and, in the long run, cancer.

2. Bleached flour containing an excess amount of oxidized benzoformyl, which can cause fatigue, dizziness, amnesia, more intense dreams, and neurasthenia

3. Adulterated moon cake and moon cakes made with fertilizer. Dumplings made with unwanted meat and unwashed cabbage were found in the Xinda Food Factory, Town of Panzhuang, Ninghe County, Tianjin. [3]

B. Meat and eggs

1. Taicang Meat Floss (crushed dried meat) made of meat from pigs died of sickness and mother pigs, mixed with large amounts of pea powder, bleached with hydrogen peroxide, other additives, and food color to make the meat floss look good

2. Chicken, duck, pork, and milk with large amounts of chloramphenicol and oxytetracycline

3. Pork feed with Clenbuterol

4. Convenience food with brine or smoked meat from animals that died of a sickness

5. Mule meat posing as Pingyao Beef

6. Jinhua Ham soaked with Dichlorvos

7. Sausage in Taixin City, Jiangsu Province, found to be toxic

8. “Peasants” food in Wenzhou, Fujian Province, found to be toxic

9. Red egg yolks from hens fed with CAROPHYLL®Red

C. Vegetables and fruits

1. Vegetables with excessive residual pesticide; “harmless” vegetables from Zhangbei County, Hebei Province, with highly-toxic residual pesticides, such as omethoate and methamidophos. These vegetables were labeled “harmless” and the packaging claims they were never sprayed with pesticides. Pesticides are used because they are cheap and powerful. They make the vegetables look good and sell well. The peasants told the journalists that they never eat these vegetables. [4]

2. Potatoes smoked in sulfur

3. Sichuan kimchi preserved in prohibited industry salt

4. Leeks sprayed with “3911” pesticide. These leeks are thicker, wider, longer, and have a deeper color.

5. “Fresh” shoots preserved with sulfur and industry salt

6. Bean sprouts that were raised using growth hormones, rootless agents, and bleached with Na2S2O4 [5]

7. Longans (similar to lychees) bleached and smoked with sulfur

8. Strawberries and kiwifruit that are fast-matured by growth hormone

9. Dried fruits with large amounts of bacteria (100 times higher than the national standard)

10. Red dates preserved with formaldehyde

D. Non-staple foods, rehydratable food such as rice noodles, seasonings, and spices

1.    Seeds (watermelon, pumpkin, sunflower) processed with mineral oils

2.    Tofu processed with pig excrement

3.    Yuba (tofu skin) processed with chemicals and carcinogens, such as industry gelatin, basic orange (chrysoidine), Rongalite (Sodium Formaldehyde Sulfoxylate)

4.    Sweet potato starch noodles processed with rongalite and food colors

5.    Longkou vermicelli containing rongalite

6.    Soy milk that has decomposed

7.    Milk powder from Anhui Province found to be toxic

8.    Rice noodles containing carbolic acid

9.    Sanyuan “Quanjia (all good)” Lactobacillus in Shanghai with numerous streptomyces

10.    Tremella, red peppers, and Pericarpium Zanthoxyli

11.    Black fungus (Auricularia auricular) stained with black ink

12.    Green tea stained with green coloring

13.    Shrimp soaked with urine

14.    Various rehydratable foods containing formaldehyde

15.    Liquor mixed with industry alcohol

16.    “Wine” made of Saccharin and food coloring

17.    Recycled oil taken out of drains

18.    The famous Chongqing Hot-Pot Seasoning using paraffin as the coagulant

19.    Red chili oil soup stock made with thousands of people’s leftovers

20.    Lard from Hunan Province found to be toxic

21.    Fake chicken extract

22.    Soy sauce processed from human hair

23.    Shanxi “Very Old Vinegar” with industry acetic acid added to it

24.    Fruit juice made near bathrooms with excessive preservative.

E. Others

1. “Healthy chopsticks” submerged in sulfur

2. Low quality drinking fountains

3. Unqualified disposable medical devices

4. Numerous counterfeit and fake medicines


[1]. Xinhua News Agency, November 2, 2005
[2]. Sina Books, February 14, 2007
[3]. China News, January 19, 2004
[4]. Sina News, August 24, 2003
[5]. Chinese Consumer Net, May 19, 2006