Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Clenbuterol Crisis

On March 15, China Central Television’s “weekly quality and safety report” revealed the widespread use of “lean meat powder” in raising hogs in Henan Province. Here's the video.

Chinese consumers have in recent years begun to prefer lean pork over the traditional fatty pork. When “lean meat powders” like clenbuterol, ractopamine, salbutamol, terbutaline sulfate, and dopamine hydrochloride are added to feed, the hog’s body devotes energy to building muscle instead of fat. The result is what is called in China a “healthy, beautiful pig,” muscular hogs that bring higher prices from traders and slaughterhouses. Industry people say the use of “lean meat powder” became a general practice, and some refer to it as the meat industry’s “melamine.”


A muscular "lean meat powder" pig dares the wolf to eat him.

Clenbuterol can cause anxiety, palpitations, dizziness, and even induce a coma. There were incidents in 2006 and 2009 when citizens of Shanghai and Guangzhou were sickened by ingesting pork containing traces of clenbuterol. Clenbuterol and ractopamine are illegal for use in animal feed in China.

A subsidiary of Shuanghui (Shineway)—China’s largest producer of processed meat products—in several counties of Henan Province was implicated in the scandal. The incident undermines Chinese consumer confidence since Shuanghui has marketed itself as a purveyor of safe meat products. Meat counters in supermarkets offering Shuanghui pork display big signs with the slogan, “18 tests, 18 assurances,” with the implication that their extensive testing should put the consumer at ease. A former employee explained in a news article that the tests actually only apply to internal operations of the plant. Moreover, Shuanghui was the leader of a campaign to create “companies with integrity” in the food industry. Last year online news articles showed Shuanghui executives signing a food safety pledge and factory workers lined up reciting similar pledges.

A China Grain Net commentary calls Shuanghui’s slogans “empty words.” A Xinhua News Agency article describes Shuanghui’s ambiguous attitude as hiding “the seemingly perfect but actually fragile food safety monitoring chain.”

The lean meat powder appears to be an arrangement between farmers, procurement officers in the local branch of Shuanghui, local officials, traders and truck drivers. If farmers don’t use it, their hogs will be too fatty and traders will not want to buy them. According to one commentator, farmers pay money to get a plaque that says they have been certified as “no harm” (wu gong hai), but officials tip them off before the auditors come Officials check feed for “lean meat powder” and find 99% compliance, but powder is manufactured by drug or chemical factories and traders sell it to farmers who mix it with the feed themselves. Small, backyard farmers are being blamed as culprits.

The pigs from Henan could get a health certificate for 10 yuan. A number of them were transported to the market in Nanjing. At Nanjing the Henan health papers were accepted. Pigs’ urine is tested for clenbuterol but drivers submitted their own urine for the tests.

The China Grain Net commentator complains that “...regulators have lost their sense of duty, having become like a person who sits at the cash register,” just collecting bribes or even helping with the fraud. “Collect money, stamp certificates, lean meat powder flows to all capillaries of the consumers.”

None of this is news to the industry or to government regulators. Last summer this blog reported on the sale of pig health certificates in Henan. There was a crackdown on "lean meat powder" in Henan announced last summer. At the time, officials claimed that 99% of the samples passed tests. The Ministry of Agriculture announced a crackdown on lean meat powder in December.

It's probably not a coincidence that the incident was announced as the National Peoples Congress ended last week. No bad news was allowed during the two big meetings; they must have been sitting on this for a while.

Consumers are cutting back on pork consumption for a while. Supermarkets and large food markets in Beijing, Nanjing, Jinan, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Ningbo, and Guangzhou all took Shuanghui meat products off their shelves, and some sold off Shuanghui products at a discount. Hog market analysts are anticipating a drop in hog prices in coming months.

The incident may have bigger consequences. It’s another in a string of food safety incidents, which the China Grain Net commentator described as “hitting the nerve of food safety,” and “an alarm bell for the food industry,” and “China’s food hygiene is having another strong earthquake.”

The incident shows one of the basic flaws in Chinese bureaucratic management embodied in the saying, “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” Top company executives and government officials may sincerely want to crack down on use of clenbuterol and sincerely issue orders to do so, but the enforcement depends on passing orders down to the local level. There is a strong tradition among local officials of giving lip service to orders from above, tidying up when the upper-level people come around, but going about their business the rest of the time. This carries over to companies where bosses have little control over their underlings or even their subsidiary companies. The incident also demonstrates that you can’t take anything at face value in China. Certifications, plaques on the wall, testing, company organizations, audits and inspections do not necessarily represent what actually goes on.

The incident also calls attention to a fundamental change in the food system in China. Consumers want lean meat, processed food, fast food, exotic foods, and they want it cheap. In the contemporary industrialized food system China is rapidly adopting, food is transformed from an ecological cycle to a chemical assembly line process from field to table. That means you’re not just eating plants and animal protein—you’re eating a chemical product. This is a major change from just a short time ago when nearly everyone in China ate “local food” that only took a matter of hours from field or slaughterhouse to table. And now there is a long chain of anonymous people involved in the process of getting food to you—can you trust them?

The issue of trust is also a major adjustment. In traditional Chinese society you could only trust the people in your clan; everyone outside the village walls is a potential enemy to be tricked and exploited. Chinese companies still tend to operate the same way—they are dominated by powerful individuals and their relatives or cronies. Within a company there are groups that feel a stronger allegiance to the group than to the company as a whole. Organizational charts have little meaning and managers have little control over their underlings. This is not a good foundation for effectively managing large organizations and ensuring food safety.

4 comments:

saam mirza said...

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Mou mirza said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mou mirza said...

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AR mirza said...

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