Year of the Snake, dodgy pigs and beef that glows in the dark

Review of the Chinese year, Part 2: Britain's horse-meat scandal had nothing on China

(Image credit: 2013 AFP)

WHEN the British horse-meat scandal snorted out of the gate in early 2013, the state-run Chinese media had a field day, effectively bellowing to domestic consumers, “See, it’s not just you lot champing at the bit for improvements in food safety!”

In China, however, the Year of the Snake, coming to an end on 30 January, has seen a series of gobsmacking food scares concerning mislabelled produce, diseased pork, “gutter” cooking oil (illicitly recycled from sewer drains, grease traps and slaughterhouse waste), “beef” that glows blue in the dark, melamine-tainted milk formula that gives kidney stones to babies, even forged hens’ eggs crafted from resin, pigment and paraffin wax.

In May, China’s Ministry of Public Security announced the seizure of 10 tonnes of meat from illegal factories in Jiangsu province and Shanghai. The offending flesh had been stripped from the bones of foxes, rats, mink and other miscellaneous critters, and those behind the scandal had been selling it to hotpot restaurants as lamb. Police estimated the operation’s sales had topped 10 million Yuan (£1 million).

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In July, police in Guangxi province impounded a stash of chickens’ feet – a common Chinese delicacy – believed to be 46 years old. The offending avian extremities (realistic sell-by date: sometime in 1967) were part of a 20-tonne consignment of assorted meat and offal smuggled from Vietnam and had been knocking around since before the Tet Offensive, the Beatles’ White Album and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Also in July, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported how a food-processing factory outside Kunming had been caught using water from a pond – where locals go to wash their feet and clothes – to make vermicelli.

In truth, there were so many food scandals in the Year of the Snake that one hardly knows where to start. One that stood out, however, occurred in March, when Shanghai folk first noticed dead pigs bobbing down the murky Huangpu River, which churns through the glamorous and wealthy city of 23 million.

First, it was tens of bacon-bellied floaters, then hundreds, then thousands, sparking increasing alarm on internet chat sites.

Within ten days, more than 12,000 bloated and rotting carcasses had been fished out. Porcine circovirus was believed to be a likely cause, and accusing fingers were quickly pointed towards neighbouring Zhejiang province, where state media reported that the dumping of perished porkers was on the rise following campaigns against the criminal trade in meat harvested from diseased animals.

Ultimately, other food scandals came along and the pigs were yesterday’s news – just contaminated water under the Lupu Bridge, with some accusing authorities of a “hogwash”. The Huangpu, by the way, is a major source of Shanghai’s drinking water.

  • Tomorrow: The Year of Men Behaving Badly

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