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Chinese police promote awareness of economic crimes near confiscated counterfeit food products last Sunday in Beijing. The headlines are unrelenting: toxic bean sprouts, filthy oil, drug-tainted pork. For months, Chinese media have been churning out stories about the dangers lurking in the nation's dinner bowls. (Ng Han Guan/Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)
Chinese police promote awareness of economic crimes near confiscated counterfeit food products last Sunday in Beijing. The headlines are unrelenting: toxic bean sprouts, filthy oil, drug-tainted pork. For months, Chinese media have been churning out stories about the dangers lurking in the nation's dinner bowls. (Ng Han Guan/Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

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Chinese news media step up efforts in fight for food safety Add to ...

Pork treated with steroids, industrial chemicals in milk and now exploding watermelons. With such headlines in the news regularly, Chinese shoppers are treading carefully in the country's supermarkets.

Growing publicity about health issues with food in China is a sign that the government has begun to use the news media in its ongoing struggle to keep the country's food supply safe.

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"That is the transparency," said Chen Junshi, a senior research professor with the Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety in China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. "In previous times, the problems were there, but they have not been found or not reported."

The doubts over China's food supply have persisted since the 2008 infant-formula scandal, where at least six young children died and 300,000 others were sickened when milk producers added melamine to make the protein content appear higher and increase their profit. The government toughened its food safety regulations and stepped up inspections. Those at the top of the milk scandal received the death penalty.

Yet Chinese newspapers still contain a daily litany of food poisonings and scares. In the last month alone, inspectors have seized another 26 tons of contaminated milk powder, pork containing clenbuterol - a steroid, often used as an asthma medication, that makes pigs lean but is not safe for consumption - and pork treated with sodium borate to make it appear to be higher-priced beef. This week hundreds of watermelons were reported to be exploding in fields in Jiangsu province after inexperienced farmers used too much of the growth accelerant forchlorfenuron, which is a legal substance.

The problem is, with half a million registered food producers - not including restaurants - and millions of small farmers, government inspectors cannot reach them all. And many operate on such slim margins that they are tempted by shortcuts, regardless of the consequences.

"There are so many small producers," Dr. Chen said. "How can they have [any]credibility? They don't care. They could close down today and tomorrow get another enterprise, maybe not milk, maybe something else. … They weigh their loss and benefits, and they want to take a chance."

China's media is normally tightly controlled and those who have been too vocal about food scandals in the past have faced harassment, or worse. A parent of a child made ill in the melamine milk scandal was given 30 months in prison for organizing a website for the victims.

That's why, observers say, the latest exposure in the media is significant.

"It has to be deliberate. … We used to find occasional snippets in newspapers and blogs about food safety issues but the next day they would disappear. These days, they aren't disappearing," said Peter Leedham, retired managing director and now consultant to the private Eurofins Technology Service laboratories based in Suzhou. "It's moving in the right direction, there's no doubt about it. But it's such a big job."

In the meantime, scouring news reports to learn which brands to avoid has become a daily ritual for many Chinese consumers.

"I think people are worried about the sources of products," said Jeannie Xie, 30, a marketing executive shopping on her lunch break. "I have made some changes, including changing which brands I buy. I pay attention to the news, and if there's a brand that seems to have problems I won't buy it."

Others say they are somewhat reassured by the just-as-frequent media reports of government inspectors busting errant producers.

"I think a lot of small producers in the milk industry have been closed because of the crackdown, so if they don't meet the standards they're done," said Chao Wubin, a 27-year-old office worker, as he and his pregnant wife left a Beijing supermarket. His wife, Gao Ying, also 27, said she will try to avoid using formula by breastfeeding their child, due later this month, but that she is not as concerned as she once might have been. "Of course we worry," Mr. Chao said. "But [the inspections]give me more confidence."

Still, China's food producers are so numerous and so scattered that tales of cooking oil recycled from the gutter and pork glowing with bacterial contamination are unlikely to ever disappear completely.

The government's measures "will work. But they will not totally make future food incidents never happen. They will still happen," Dr. Chen said. "I'm not saying the government should not strengthen their food safety and inspection controls. But this is reality."



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"That is the transparency," said Chen Junshi, a senior research professor with the Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety in China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. "In previous times, the problems were there, but they have not been found or not reported."







The doubts over China's food supply have persisted since the 2008 infant-formula scandal, which killed at least six young children died and sickened 300,000 others , after farmers added melamine to make their milk's protein content appear higher and so increase their profit. The government toughened its food-safety regulations and stepped up inspections; those at the top of the milk scandal received the death penalty.



Yet Chinese newspapers still contain a daily litany of food poisonings and scares. In the last month alone, inspectors have seized another 26 tons of contaminated milk powder, pork containing clenbuterol - a steroid which makes pigs lean but is not safe for human consumption- and pork treated with sodium borate to make it appear to be higher-priced beef. This week, China's state television reported that hundreds of watermelons were exploding in fields in Jiangsu province after inexperienced farmers used too much of the growth accelerant forchlorfenuron, which is a legal substance.



This week, state-controlled media reported that local government officials will now have food safety tied to their regular performance reviews. But possibly more important, observers say, is the role of the normally tightly controlled media in revealing ongoing problems.



"One of the problems is people don't want to talk about it," said Paul Midler, author of the book "Poorly Made in China" and a quality-control consultant based in Hong Kong, who argues that change will not happen until factory workers and consumers themselves can speak out without fear of reprisal. "There are quality problems that are the result of not knowing, or negligent behavior, but then you have the things that are outright fraud."



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