HONG KONG — Even for China’s scandal-numbed diners, inured to endless outrages about food hazards, news that the lamb simmering in the pot may actually be rat tested new depths of disgust.
In an announcement intended to show that the government is serious about improving food safety, the Ministry of Public Security said on Thursday that the police had caught a gang of traders in eastern China who bought rat, fox and mink flesh and sold it as mutton. But that and other cases of meat smuggling, faking and
adulteration featured in Chinese newspapers and Web sites on Friday were unlikely to instill confidence in consumers already queasy over many reports about meat, fruit and vegetables laden with disease, toxins, banned dyes and preservatives.
Sixty-three people were arrested and accused of “buying fox, mink and rat and other meat products that had not undergone inspection,” which they doused in gelatin, red pigment and nitrates, and sold as mutton in Shanghai and adjacent Jiangsu Province for about $1.6 million, according to the ministry’s statement. The report, posted on the Internet, did not explain how exactly the traders acquired the rats and other creatures.
“How many rats does it take to put together a sheep?” said one typically baffled and angry user of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog service that often acts as a forum for public venting. “Is it cheaper to raise rats than sheep?”
Residents of Shanghai recently endured the sight of thousands of dead hogs floating down a nearby river, apparently the dumped victims of disease in piggeries upstream.
The arrests were part of a nationwide operation since late January to “attack food safety crimes and defend the safety of the dining table,” the ministry said. The police arrested 904 people suspected of selling fake, diseased, toxic or adulterated meat, and broke up 1,721 illicit factories, workshops and shops. Yet the ministry acknowledged that diners still had reason to worry.
In food safety campaigns in past years, “some serious problems have been dealt with swiftly and vigorously, but for a variety of reasons, food safety crimes remain serious, and are displaying new circumstances and features,” an unnamed senior official said in the statement.
“For example, there is selling of meat injected with water and meat from animals dead from disease, as well as passing off relatively cheap types of meat as relatively expensive beef and mutton.”
China’s prime minister since March, Li Keqiang, has said that improving food safety is a priority — one of the main grievances of citizens that he has said his government will 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, Mao Shoulong, a professor of public policy at Renmin University in Beijing, said in an interview.
“The United States and Europe can’t eradicate these problems, either, but they are even more complicated in China,” said Professor Mao, who has studied food and pharmaceutical safety regulation.