While Europe’s horsemeat scandal earlier this year was physically harmless, China’s rat meat scam only hints at the dire public health threats posed by the nation’s underground meat market.
Chinese police arrested 63 people in the fake lamb scheme as part of a larger operation to combat an illegal industry of fake, diseased or adulterated meat. Since late January, police have seized 20,000 tons of unsafe meat and broken up 1,721 factories and shops manufacturing and trading in un-inspected meat usually pumped full of illegal preservatives and toxins. One person even died recently after eating illegally-produced lamb riddled with pesticides. Mass illnesses caused by contaminated meat in 2011 is also still fresh in Chinese memory.
Despite recent efforts to crack down on counterfeit meat, the black market has flourished in the absence of effective regulation:
China’s prime minister since March, Li Keqiang, has said that improving food safety was a priority — one of the main grievances of ordinary citizens that he has said his government would tackle. But similar vows by his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, ran up against inadequate resources, buck-passing and muddle among rival agencies, and protectionism by local officials, said Mao Shoulong, a professor of public policy at Renmin University in Beijing, in an interview.
“Chinese food production has become larger scale and more technological, but the problems emerging also involve using more sophisticated technology to beat regulators and cheat consumers,” he said. “The government’s efforts need to catch up with the scale and complexity of the problems.”
China’s court also issued new guidelines Friday advising tough sentencing and harsh punishment for anyone caught making or selling unsafe food. However, some critics have decried the government’s focus on punitive measures after contamination has already occurred, instead calling for greater inspection and enforcement of food safety standards.
Though the American food safety framework is currently much stronger than China’s, some lawmakers here are actually pushing to weaken food inspection and regulatory oversight over meat production. Unlike China, foodborne illness in the U.S. does not come from nameless criminals, but rather from powerful companies with huge shares of the market. These companies have actively pushed for weaker regulation even as outbreaks of foodborne illnesses are becoming more common. Republican legislators have complied, gutting food safety programs and the Food and Drug Administration.