The Chinese government introduced a new food safety law in 2009 and established a food safety commission in 2010. In addition, consumers who report illegal activities will reportedly receive monetary rewards.
But there are still many problems, as evidenced by an early warning system in Brussels designed to detect contaminated food and animal feed products for all EU countries, which disproportionately flags products originating in China. By last Friday, 262 reports on Chinese products had been received in Brussels for 2012 alone. They included noodles infested with maggots, shrimp contaminated with antibiotics, foul-smelling peanuts and candied fruit with an excessively high sulfur content (see graphic).
Ulrich Nöhle is very familiar with food production in China. A professor of food chemistry, Nöhle has worked for many years as an independent auditor in China, where he inspects products for quality on behalf of German retailers. He says that "you get what you order" from China, explaining that German retailers have to "specify how the product is to be grown or what standards are required to label a product as organic, for example." But, he adds, those who order products from China that are the cheapest possible and have not been inspected have only themselves to blame when they don't receive the goods they expected.
In one case, Nöhle discovered that sweeteners ordered in China by German customers had a strong odor of solvents. But when he spoke to the Chinese producers about it, they said: "It always smells like that." Nöhle had to have the production facilities reorganized until the product was up to German standards.
Once products are on their way to other countries, they are subject to very little inspection. At the port of Hamburg, which handles a large share of overseas food products destined for the European market, more than 15 percent of shipments containing animal products and 20 percent of those containing plant products are now from China.
In the case of fish, meat, honey and dairy products, an importer is required to report the products to the veterinary and importation office at the Hamburg port prior to arrival as well as to submit import manifests. The office then decides whether the products can be imported without being inspected. Sealed containers are only opened when there are doubts about their contents. When they are opened, veterinarians examine the containers to make sure that the refrigeration is working and that the contents were shipped at the correct temperature. Subsequent inspections are the responsibility of local food-inspection agencies, which are more knowledgeable about fast-food restaurants and farms than about global flows of commodities.
Plant-based food products are subject to even more lax monitoring, and they usually enter the EU without any inspection, whether fresh, frozen or preserved. The exceptions are only a small number of special food products that have attracted negative attention in the past or are currently under suspicion, and many of these products are now from China: peanuts, soybeans, rice, noodles, grapefruit and tea. These products are frequently inspected and, on rare occasions, individual countries even impose import bans.
Losing Faith in Inspectors
The inconsistent inspection regimen also complicates the search for the causes of problems. In about half of the 3,697 cases in which the EU issued warnings last year, consumer advocates "could no longer trace the products to the original producers," says Höhle, the food inspector. At least the supplier of the strawberries behind the recent norovirus outbreak in eastern Germany is now known. The fruit was grown, harvested and frozen in Shandong Province. And a Chinese company shipped it from the port in Qingdao to Hamburg.
In Hamburg, a German distributor, Elbfrost Tiefkühlkost, took delivery of and paid duties on the 44 tons. The next day, the company trucked the strawberries to Mehltheuer, a town in the eastern state of Saxony. Elbfrost's main buyer was Sodexo, an international catering company headquartered in France, which operates 65 regional kitchens in Germany. Officials with the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, together with prosecutors in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, are now conducting a painstaking investigation to find out where the strawberries were contaminated.
Elbfrost management says that it will no longer buy products from China because it cannot guarantee that Chinese suppliers are shipping "product of flawless quality." But if quality is so uncertain, why did Elbfrost order products from China in the first place? The company, which is based in Saxony, has sourced strawberries, mushrooms and asparagus from China. Elbfrost claims that it is dependent on imports, and its management emphasizes the "attractive pricing" of Chinese products. Last year, Germany imported more than 31,000 tons of processed strawberries from China, at an average price of 1.10 per kilogram.
The world's largest retail chains, Walmart, Carrefour, Tesco and Metro, as well as producers like Coca-Cola, Unilever, Barilla, Campbell's and Nestlé, have recognized that they cannot rely on inspections from suppliers or governments. But they also can't afford to sell contaminated food products, given the potentially immense harm to their image. This is why the biggest companies in the industry have joined forces to form the Global Food Safety Initiative, with the aim of developing their own quality controls. "Together with our suppliers, we set certain standards that we believe to be correct," says Peter Overbosch, deputy head of global quality management at Metro AG.
The initiative doesn't include smaller companies, such as those that supply caterers and restaurants. In the end, however, the consumer also bears some of the responsibility. In general, China is certainly capable of producing high-quality products, says a food inspector from Hamburg, "but you get what you pay for."
BY SUSANNE AMANN, CHARLOTTE HAUNHORST, UDO LUDWIG, MAXIMILIAN POPP, SANDRA SCHULZ, ANDREAS ULRICH AND BERNHARD ZAND