Nutrition

Listen to the Fat Man: China Urges New Leader to Focus on Food Safety

A picture is worth a thousand words.
The chubby Xi Jinping (middle) is declared new leader of China’s Community Party, and the last hope for China’s food safety.

On Tuesday, PBS News Hour released an 11-minute video entitled, “As China’s Diet Grow, So Do Concerns Over Safety and Sustainability.” The investigative report, by China correspondent Mary Kay Magistad and Producer Cassandra Herrman, couldn’t come at a more important time; just a day later, China’s Communist Party announced the selection of their country’s seven new leaders. With ten years since China’s last change in party member, citizens are watching closely to see how their new leaders will tackle emerging issues on food safety and public health during a time of economic and political transition.

A Dual Transition
China is undergoing a dual transition. Once isolated, China’s planned economy is quickly integrating with world markets, bringing in Yum! Brands, McDonald’s, and a growing taste for meat. To compensate, China’s traditional agricultural practices, once focused on consumer goods, is taking a shift to industrialized production of livestock and increased reliance on importation. The subsequent rise in city jobs has led to the largest internal migration in history, with 1/2 of the entire Chinese population living in urban areas. Higher wages, urban sprawl, a quick-paced lifestyle, and a meat-crazed nation, and you ‘re looking at the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution. But is this another case of history repeating itself, or will China learn from U.S. mistakes?

Meat the New China
The Chinese celebrate their industrial boom with a parallel  boom in meat and dairy consumption, a form of vengeance and symbol of elitism after years of poverty and starvation. Over the past 30 years, meat consumption in China has quadrupled; the country both produces and consumes an astounding 1/2 of the world’s pork. The formerly soy-rich country is now forced to import 70% of it’s soybeans from the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina to feed their growing livestock. What’s more, China is building dairy farms thanks to a “Global Cattle Drive,” bringing in 100,000 live cattle. Laws currently prohibit the importation of live cattle from the U.S., but this doesn’t stop China: imported cow embryos and semen are supplying China’s future livestock. An additional safety net: “China’s frozen pork reserve.”

New Industry, Old Policy
China is ahead of it’s time. Increased livestock production has led to water pollution, forcing the government to hand out water treatment kits for rural residents to obtain safe drinking water. Even so, water table levels have fallen to such levels that residents need to dig as far as 500 meters for water. Food scandals are on the rise: heart-attack causing Clenbuterol added for lean pork production, and the addition of Melamine in watered-down milk and baby formula to pass protein inspections (to date, leaving to 13,000 children hospitalized).

What’s more, China is building dairy farms thanks to a “Global Cattle Drive,” bringing in 100,000 live cattle. Laws currently prohibit the importation of live cattle from the U.S., but this doesn’t stop China: imported cow embryos and semen are supplying China’s future livestock. An additional safety net: “China’s frozen pork reserve.”

Unlike the industrial business, China’s food policy hasn’t been as quick to act. Although China holds over a dozen government agencies aimed at regulating Chinese food companies, these are heavily criticized for overlap, corruption, and ineffective penalties and x-year plans. The nation relies on patch-work policy, and not enough time on prevention. Citizens worried about food safety are forced to buy packaged and processed foods, while the elite buy organic. The country’s only food hero is social media: China’s Upton Sinclair, Wu Heng, became an internet sensation after publishing a blog with an interactive map of food scandals across China.

The U.S. and China: Different But The Same
Through the eyes of the U.S., China appears as “it’s only son”; we wish for China to avoid all those same mistakes that we once made. In the U.S., obesity is most common amongst the poor; in China, it’s still the wealthy, but not for long: give China’s industrial agriculture time to grow, and food prices are sure to drop. Still in transition, China has time to take preventative measures, such as offering farmers higher wages, and not solely rely on over-riding policy. Leader Xi Jinping seems to agree, “Food safety is a significant livelihood issue. While strengthening supervision and punishment, the whole society should be mobilized to focus on the issue in order to create a sound social environment.”

One thing we know for sure: China’s fight for food safety falls well beyond the notion of safety; building consumer trust is likely one step closer to a democratic China.

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