BEIJING — Poisoned pet food and lead-tainted children’s toys have created jitters worldwide about the safety of Chinese exports, but lost in the media storm is this fact: Consumers in China face an even more daunting challenge from misleading labels and unscrupulous manufacturers.
Take, for example, wine. Chinese vineyards can fib about the vintage on labels. They also can mislead consumers about where the wine comes from.
Some inexpensive “wines” may not even be wine at all. The state broadcaster, China Radio International, said investigators earlier this year found that “many wines consist of little more than water, pigment and alcohol, with trace amounts of grape juice.”
False wine labels don't fall into the category of bogus antibiotics, which killed seven people in China last year. No one has perished from sipping a mock merlot.
But the same toxic toothpastes and anti-freeze-tainted cough syrups that killed dozens of people in Panama and Haiti were on store shelves in China until last month. Other items recalled overseas — including seafood tainted with antibiotics, flammable baby clothes, unsafe extension cords and exploding batteries — generally remain in stores in China.
Senior officials have gone on the offensive against the foreign recalls, claiming they have less to do with safety and more to do with trade protectionism.
“I'm here to tell you, have faith in ‘Made in China,’” Li Changjiang, director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said on a television show Monday night aimed at boosting consumer confidence.
Authorities say they investigated 68,000 cases of counterfeit and substandard food products last year and destroyed 5,900 kitchens and laboratories “used to produce and sell shoddy food products.”
Mislabeling of wine and other consumable products remains a major problem and points to broader issues in China, where factory owners and local government officials work together to promote economic growth, often ignoring severe pollution or health concerns.
Authorities haven't allowed major independent consumer protection groups to emerge, and when problems arise, redress can come late.
The anything-goes atmosphere in the alcoholic beverage sector is a case in point. At a recent workshop on the wine market in China, Ma Huiqin, an expert at China Agricultural University, decried the false vintages that China’s vintners use on some labels.
“They try to promote fake vintages, ’92, ’93 and even ’80-somethings. It’s cheating,” Ma said. “Nobody has stopped them.”
An industry spokesman acknowledged that the mislabeling has hurt wine’s image.
“In recent years, various problems … in the wine industry have caused (a) negative effect among consumers, such as fake vintage and bad quality,” Qi Wang, head of the China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association, said in a written synopsis handed out at the conference.
Several Chinese vineyards also claim their wines come from well-known wine-growing areas overseas, leaving foreign vintners fuming.
A trade group of winemakers in Napa Valley, the Northern California region celebrated for its high-end wines, said it has found wine labeled “Valley Napa” in China.
“Additionally, we have learned of other Chinese brands using Napa place names in labeling,” said Terry Hall, a spokesman for Napa Valley Vintners. “Our vintners . . . have built a rock-solid reputation for high-quality wines second to none in the world. For others to be trading on that is wrong.”
Most wineries around the world follow strict labeling and content rules. China has been slow to adopt such regulations.
“The labeling issue is a big problem,” said Larry Lockshin, a professor of wine marketing at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, who attended the workshop.
Qi, the industry spokesman, said rules coming into effect in January will require that 80 percent of a wine must come from the vintage year indicated on the bottle label, and 75 percent of the wine must be from the grape variety indicated, such as merlot or chardonnay.
Still to be resolved is whether local winemakers can mix bulk wine imported from countries such as Spain, Chile, Australia and Argentina with their own wines without telling the consumer. Such bulk wine can sell for as little as 40 cents a liter.
Bulk wine imports to China climbed 121 percent last year, hitting nearly five times the volume of imported bottled wine. Industry experts say most of the bulk wine goes into the bottled wine of China’s three big vintners — Great Wall, Dynasty and Changyu which label their wines as products of China.
A purchasing executive with a foreign supermarket chain operating in China, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he doesn’t want to antagonize local vineyards, said of China’s homegrown wines: “I believe nothing on the label.”
Sipping wine still trails sipping tea as a Chinese pastime, although local wineries are growing quickly. Average Chinese drink only two cups a year, compared with a little over nine 750 ml bottles per person in the United States and 73 such bottles per capita in France. Still, China will climb to become the world’s 10th largest wine-consuming nation by 2010, says International Wine and Spirit Record, a data-tracking group in London.
A prominent blogger about wine in China, Wu Shuxian, was among the first to publicly accuse a major Chinese vintner of lying on labels.
In July 2006, Wu wrote on her blog that a Great Wall wine was bogus.
“The label of the wine is false. It claims to be a 1999 vintage, but I could taste that it wasn’t older than 2004,” Wu wrote.Great Wall, which grows grapes in Shandong province but is headquartered in Beijing, didn't respond to e-mail requests for comment on its labeling practices. Upon hearing the topic of an interview request, a woman in the public relations department said, “We are quite busy these days and cannot answer such specific questions.”
Ma, the wine professor, said many Chinese consumers remain unaware of the labeling problems and loyal to Chinese-labeled wine. The big national brands “do a lot of promotion on television, and the advertising is not about taste. It’s about brand.”
Moreover, labels of foreign brands, with their esoteric references to bouquets and “fruity” finishes, often baffle Chinese consumers.
“If you mention ‘raspberry notes’ on the label to a Chinese consumer, it means nothing. They’ve never tasted raspberry,” she said.