When Big Factories Are Better

The scare over tainted food products from China keeps getting, um, scarier. As the nation’s government admitted Wednesday, inspectors encountered 23,000 instances of food contamination involving 180 plants around China in the six months from December through May. Why the officials waited this long to come forward is just one of many troubling questions raised by this whole affair, which started with tainted wheat gluten in pet food several months back.

This time around, the focus is on a wide array of products including flour, candy, biscuits, seafood, and bean curd, Forbes reports; those and other foods were found to contain dangerous chemical additives like petroleum by-products, formaldehyde, and a carcinogenic green fabric dye. “It was unclear whether any of the cases involved food made for export,” according to Forbes.

But if we Westerners think we’re getting squeamish, imagine what folks in China are dealing with. “Chinese people are becoming suspicious about the food they eat,” Shanghai-based writer Fuchsia Dunlop explains on Gourmet’s blog. “Some of my friends seek out vegetables with insect-bites in them, on the grounds that they won’t be drenched in pesticides.”

Both Dunlop and Forbes reporter Vivian Wai-yin Kwok cite the particularly small scale of Chinese food factories as likely causes of the safety issues. As Kwok puts it,

Most of the cases involved small, unlicensed food-processing plants with less than 10 people. Government figures show that about 75% of the 1 million food-processing plants … are small and privately owned, according to China Daily.

Here in the United States, there’s a tendency among chowish types to think of small-scale anything as good, at least when it comes to food. And “unlicensed” doesn’t seem all that terrible anymore in American foodie circles, now that there are movements dedicated to freeing treats like raw milk and mangosteens from the tyranny of FDA regulations.

But perhaps it’s as the old saying goes: You have to know the rules in order to break them (or maybe in order to break them safely). Since there’s never been any serious crackdown on illegal food-processing practices in China, the small manufacturers have apparently turned into deranged, penny-pinching molecular gastronomists, replacing food-grade ingredients with cheap industrial chemicals. Hopefully the Chinese government’s efforts to shore up the nation’s food safety won’t just fizzle after next summer’s Olympics.

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