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Consumers must say no to additives

The dairy scandal that has poisoned thousands of children raises difficult questions about food safety regulation, manufacturers’ responsibility and consumer awareness, writes Jiang Gaoming.

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The milk safety scandal that is sweeping China has brought melamine, a previously obscure chemical, to public attention. By September 26, contaminated milk had sickened 53,000 babies and killed four. It is hard to believe that this white organic powder, used in the production of plastics, glue, fire retardants and fertiliser, was added to baby milk formula. A toxic chemical, shown in animal tests to cause kidney failure and death, has cast a shadow over the lives and futures of thousands of innocent children. Three years ago hundreds of babies were found to be consuming fake milk powder with no nutritional value. Now we have yet another case of babies put in danger by their food.  

More shocking is that when quality regulators carried out tests, products from 23 dairy firms, including household names Mengniu and Yili, contained melamine. Products from manufacturers involved in the contamination scandal, from the provinces of Guangdong and Qingdao, were exported to Bangladesh, Burma, Yemen, Burundi and Gabon.  

Melamine is not a regular food additive, and its appearance in products made by Sanlu and other firms indicates criminal behaviour. But should government-approved food additives be trusted either? The large-scale use of food additives may increase production to some extent, but it has a significant impact on quality, and some of these foods may be a danger to public health. Pigs that used to take a year to reach maturity now take only four months, while hormones are used to ready chickens for slaughter in only 45 days. People used to be confident that herbivores, such as cows and sheep, would not be fed additives, yet the quest for greater profits mean that these animals are now fed additive-laden chicken feed and leanness enhancers.  

Chemical additives are a threat to food safety. Bleaching agents in flour, antioxidants in cooking oil and preservatives in cakes are all pose dangers to health. The chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, fish, shrimp, turtles, shellfish, cows and sheep that are raised in artificial environments are all treated with hormones, leanness enhancers, tranquilisers, colourings, fertiliser and even contraceptives: substances that are not found in the wild. Which additives are used to bring the protein and starch content of processed meat up to standard? And are they safe? Only the manufacturers know, and they are not telling us.  

We must ask why these dangerous additives are so common, and we need to look at the actions of both manufacturers and consumers.

Manufacturers aim to make money: they do not have to consume their own products, so they can add anything that increases their profits. The addition of nitrogen-rich melamine – under the name of “protein powder” – to Sanlu milk and milk powder increased the appearance of protein content during quality checks, which use nitrogen levels to measure protein content. The addition of urea to pig feed has been proposed, even in some textbooks. Previously farmers used to feed pigs fertilisers; now, they just give the animals raw chemicals. After all, the farmers aren’t going to eat their own products; there is a separation from the consumers.  

A lack of awareness on the part of consumers has allowed this use of additives to become so widespread. Consumers like unnaturally lean meat, so manufacturers add leanness enhancers, and consumers pay the price with their health. Consumers prefer fresh-looking cucumbers, so additives, including contraceptives, are used to create that appearance. Consumers like white flour, so they get flour with talcum powder and phosphor added. But why do people prefer pure white bread? Flour is naturally darker because of the seed casing, not the pure white you see in the supermarket. Unrealistic expectations have allowed additives to take over the food chain.  

The demand for high-quality, low-cost goods is prompting manufacturers to provide unsafe foods. Doing away with additives and using traditional production techniques takes longer, requires more manpower and results in products that are much harder to sell. When I tried to persuade farmers in east China’s Shandong province to raise cows without hormones, fertiliser or leanness enhancers they received 300 to 500 yuan (US$44 to $73) less per head on the market. The farmers gave up and went back to using additives. In Europe and the United States farmers have even fed animal organs to cows, turning herbivores into carnivores and giving rise to illnesses such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (“mad cow disease”). The South Koreans are protesting against imported beef, but in China not an opposing voice is heard.  

It is time for government action on this issue. The authorities need to make clear what substances may be added to animal feed or foodstuffs, with limits on quantities and a strict enforcement and punishment regime. On this occasion the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine has cracked down hard, impounding products that have not yet left the factory and working with other authorities to recall or destroy those already in the supply chain. Those firms that had been classed as “Famous Chinese Brands”, or were exempt from testing, have had that status revoked. The government has taken a firm stance on food safety. But if we want to prevent this happening again, the wisest option is to allow scientists and the media to guide consumption by telling the public the truth about food manufacturing and reducing the use of additives in food. 


Jiang Gaoming is a professor and Ph.D. tutor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of China Society of Biological Conservation and board member of China Environmental Culture Promotion Association. He is known for his concepts of "urban vegetation" and allowing damaged ecosystems to recover naturally.

Homepage photo by Sam Ose / Olai Skjaervoy

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评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Argue against the idea of high-quality food from high cost

Who can say that the poor have to take the unsafe food? Isn't that all can receive the healthy food a justification? I reject the thinking to address this problem by economic means.

Translated by Ming Li

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




a good and strong government

Thanks God, you finally mentioned the responsibilities of the government. There is no wrong with the consumers for their demands for high-quality, low-cost goods. We need the government not only to be strong, but also to be good.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



No one can escape

The safest location in a mine field is the small plot being exploded. By the same token, the new shelved cow milk is by all means safer than any other food. Yet human beings can not live on milk only, so we have to take the risk of eating food without ingredient identification. It is lucky that the food we eat might not kill us, because the so-called 'quality-guaranteed' or 'reassuring food' can not give us a peace of mind at all! We are living in a man-made toxic environment. The things we eat, the places we reside in and the air we breathe in are all toxic in some way...none of them is unpolluted and purely natural.

The modernization or globalization driven by human beings is what poisons the Earth. It poisons not only mankind itself, but all living creatures on Earth. The only way out for every lifeform on this planet is to evolve a body being able to keep toxicity out. There are no other alternatives. It is a pity that the Earth might turn out to be a 'dead globe' far before the evolution is achieved.

Translated by Ming Li

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



本评论由Ming Li翻译

No one should have to take risks

Zyn, I think your comment is very pessimistic. Human beings have evolved far enough figure out what foods are safe, and society has developed far enough to protect bad food from getting in the markets. Like some of the other comments above, I think the government carries the most responsibility in making sure that food is safe. Food needs to be safe, especially if it is shipped to such diverse places as Bangladesh, Burma, Yemen, Burundi and Gabon.

-Crystal, US

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Could high cost guarantee high quality?

Who shall help us hold the pass?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Be wary of Chinese food

I am a faithful supporter of the boycott against Japanese goods! But now that Chinese foodstuffs have so many safety issues, I will definitely boycott them just like I did with the Japanese food if the circumstances last. I am a man of my word!

Translated by Ming Li

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Without additives

Without additives, will the food supply be severely strained? Will the food be affordable for the common people?

Translated by Ming li

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


看一个民族是否伟大,那就看看他们为他们的孩子做了什么吧。这是一位伟人说过的话。婴幼儿可是祖国的未来啊,难道这不值得我们所有为他们服务的人思考吗? 太可悲了!

How distressing that kids are at risk. I am in despair.

A famous person said, whether a nation is great depends on how they treat their kids. Infants and babies are the future of one's country. Could it be that it is not worth the effort for us all to consider the children? This is very distressing! (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Translated by Yan LIU

Eat from your own field

Eating locally is the best way to limit our exposure to toxins in food. Eating food that was available locally but is now outsourced overseas is ridiculous. No local oversight and a big waste of energy as well as a reduction in local employment.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Translated by Jiayun Li


My dad has been drinking a local milk for 3,4 years. In the 1st half of this years, he had kidney stone. Is it just an amazing coincidence?