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Recent spate of food scares has China on edge

ZHENGZHOU, China—A few days ago, an alarmed teacher at a day-care center in this city south of Beijing called emergency services when some of her charges began to vomit. Ambulances rushed to Xinxin Day Care, and doctors later treated some 50 youngsters.

The culprit was tainted soy milk, but it was nothing dire and the children were home by dusk. However, the way in which local authorities handled the case—by suppressing the news—added to the parents' anguish and the concerns about the safety of food processing in China.

That concern is spreading to North America, where in the past five weeks U.S. authorities have recalled about 100 brands of dog and cat food made with wheat gluten and rice protein ingredients from China that's thought to be tainted with melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers. Now U.S. poultry and pig farms are on alert for feed made from the discarded pet food.

China's Foreign Ministry on Thursday denied that melamine-tainted protein exports sold to the United States had caused the spate of pet deaths. President Hu Jintao urged China's farmers and food-processing industry last week to improve food safety, prompted by the quickening pace of scandals over adulterated and tainted food.

The food scare shows a country caught between old habits of covering up—or denying—outbreaks of food-related illness and a modern desire to address problems squarely as the nation becomes a link in the global food chain.

Chinese citizens themselves worry a great deal about the safety of their food. A survey by China's Food and Drug Administration, cited by the state Xinhua news agency, found that 65 percent of Chinese are concerned about the food supply.

Food poisoning made headlines repeatedly in the past three weeks alone. Watermelon tainted by pesticides sickened residents in Guangdong and Shaanxi provinces last week. In southern Fujian province, 34 students fell ill after eating mushrooms at a cafeteria April 17. A day earlier, 60 migrant workers grew sick in Shanghai from canteen food. Police are investigating how rat poison got in breakfast food at a hospital in Harbin on April 9, making 200 people ill and killing one person.

The tendency to cover up, or minimize, the cases is strong in China.

When the children fell ill Wednesday at the Xinxin Day Care in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, the national news agency carried a brief item but local media carried nothing, despite the anguish of local parents.

Within moments of a foreign reporter's arrival at the day-care center, police hauled him to a local station for questioning. "There's no problem here," said Officer Li Gaofeng, adding: "If this is in the foreign media, it will damage China's reputation."

At the entrance to the day care, a guard initially said the report was false. But parents described the incident in detail.

"Six ambulances came to the school and took kids to the hospital," said Niu Huiying, guardian of 4-year-old Zhao Mengjin, who attends the day care.

Later, officials from the city's publicity and education bureaus arrived and provided a detailed accounting. "The soybean milk was not boiled adequately," said Ma Wanfeng, a spokesman for the city's Guancheng district.

Chinese have good reason to worry that heavy metals, pesticides and other contaminants are creeping into their food. China is the world's biggest producer and user of pesticides, and many farmers over-apply pesticides and fertilizers to get greater yields on limited arable land.

According to the State Environmental Protection Administration, heavy metals pollute about 12 million tons of crops each year, causing economic losses of $2.5 billion.

Unscrupulous food processors and pharmaceutical suppliers, taking advantage of lax oversight, have been caught in recent years diluting infant formula, watering down other products and selling bogus or ineffective medicines.

If there's a way to add bulk to food with an additive such as melamine, "God forbid, then they will do it, because they probably get away with it most of the time, and it increases their profit in a market where profit margins are microns thin," said Matthew Crabbe, the managing director of Access Asia, a Shanghai-based market research firm.

Crabbe said foreign firms that obtained food ingredients in China "would probably be safer to actually buy some farmland there and grow ... it themselves."

A specialist in food safety at China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Chen Junshi, said the nation's sprawling agricultural and food-processing sectors were difficult to monitor.

"China has more than 200 million farmers in food production, and they seriously lack knowledge about food safety. It is so difficult to effectively inspect such a huge number of food producers that I don't think any government in the world can do the job," Chen said.

He said factors such as media exaggeration, public ignorance and official negligence could compound the problems. "It easily creates panic among the public," he said.


(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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