Chinese Consumers Fear Tainted Food, Also

Chinese shoppers at an international supermarket admit they're worried about food safety. Problems dog every stage of the food production process such as unsafe substances added to food, delivery trucks that aren't refrigerated and goods stored and sold in an unhygienic environment.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If the list of tainted Chinese products is startling to Americans, consider how Chinese consumers must feel.

Here's NPR's Louisa Lim.

LOUISA LIM: Chinese shoppers have been fed a daily diet of shocking stories about substandard food for years, long before American fears were raised. They've seen eggs tainted with a carcinogenic dye, pigs pumped full of wastewater to boost their weight, and most horrific of all fake baby milk that killed at least 13 infants. At an international supermarket, shoppers Fung Xin Zhou(ph) and Xiang Ai(ph) admit they're worried about food safety.

Mr. FUNG XIN ZHOU: (Through translator) It's expensive here. But that doesn't matter as long as it's clean. We're buying security.

Ms. XIANG AI: (Through Translator) People here think of food as being as important as the sky. If there's a problem with the food, it's as if the sky is falling.

LIM: At this traditional Chinese market, fish are sold in plastic buckets, the dead ones floating belly up among the live fish. Problems dog every stage of the food production process here. Unsafe substances may be added to food, most delivery trucks aren't refrigerated and goods can be stored and sold at in unhygienic environment.

James Morehouse from management consultancy A.T. Kearney says huge investment is needed.

Mr. JAMES MOREHOUSE (Senior Vice President, A.T. Kearney): It will probably take a hundred billion dollars equivalent over the next 10 years to put in place the infrastructure.

LIM: Consumer rights advocates like Wang Donghai indicate growing domestic dissatisfaction. In his decade in the business, he's uncovered fake medicines, fake health supplements and toys so dangerous they could put a child's life at risk. He says inspection mechanisms aren't working partly due to corruption.

Mr. WANG DONGHAI (Consumer Advocate, China): (Through translator) The level of scrutiny isn't high enough and some things get covered up because local governments want to protect their own economic interests. So they don't report scandals. Only when scores or hundreds of people have died do they realize they can't cover it up.

LIM: Faced with international scrutiny, China has publicized disclosure of 180 substandard food factories, while officials insist the safety of Chinese goods is guaranteed.

Beijing's also impounded foreign products, including orange pulp and preserved apricots from the U.S., citing high levels of bacteria, mildew and sulfur dioxide. Bing Zhang from A.T. Kearney says this reflects Beijing's suspicions that political motivations lurk behind the complaints over Chinese products.

Mr. BING ZHANG (A.T. Kearney): There's an increased trade deficit issues between China and U.S., and therefore all the queries about the food safety and quality issues were part of the ways to protect the U.S. market.

LIM: The biggest victims may be China's long-suffering consumers. But it's taken an international scandal to force Beijing into action, sparked by the deaths of American cats and dogs who ate tainted pet food. Beijing now realizes it must act fast before the made-in-China label is entirely devalued.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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