On food safety, China misapplies a ‘blacklist’

Sarcasm reflects how aware the Chinese public has become of the dangers of adulterated food. After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis, a rumor circulated in China that table salt could prevent radiation. In spite of the government’s efforts to curb the rumors, tons of overpriced table salt were sold overnight. Chinese netizens reassured the public in their own ironic way. Chinese people have been consuming fruit soaked in pesticides, waste cooking oil, and pork tainted with chemicals for years, online commenters notes. In 2008, milk powder spiked with the chemical melamine caused sickness and death among young children. Nuclear radiation, in this light, seems less worrisome.  

The latest food scare involves plasticizer, an industrial additive used in making plastics, cement, and concrete. Taiwan discovered it first in health supplements, then the substance was found in packaged food on sale in mainland China. On June 3, Ministry of Health officials said that consuming plasticizer could damage the human reproductive system. Yang Zhizhu, a former China Youth University of Political Sciences professor, wrote a satirical blog post describing plasticizer as a better population control measure than the One Child Policy.

The Ministry of Health is aware of public anger over the problems of food safety. Yet on June 16, Mao Qun’an, director of the ministry’s information center, pinned the blame on media reports, saying, “We will set up a blacklist for certain press and journalists” to prevent them from spreading “wrong information.” People online ask why the Ministry of Health isn’t building a blacklist for those who manufacture tainted food instead.

The media is very often limited in its food safety reporting, unable to give the public a thorough picture. A blacklist would do nothing but quarantine the public from information.

On June 13, National Food Safety Promotion Week was officially launched at a ceremony in Beijing’s People’s Hall. Li Keqiang, the deputy prime minister, said it was “crucial to spread information about food safety laws” and encouraged the public to participate. Given the media blacklist, however, it is more likely that public participation in the issue will continue, not through official channels but through the sarcasm of China’s netizens.