A few bad apples spoil the whole bunch
Updated: 2012-05-04 08:48
By Jin Zhu (China Daily)
Products in Coca-Cola's North China arm, Shanxi Beverages Co Ltd have been found to contain higher levels of chlorine than is normally permitted, one among a series of safety violations involving famous international brands. Yan Yan / Xinhua
International companies in China must take more steps to ensure products are safe for consumption
International companies, which often benchmark their products on quality, may find the going tough in China after recent checks have unearthed a series of wrongdoings and violations of safety standards.
"Many foreign firms are taking advantage of the loose regulations in China to cover up quality issues, thereby leading to an increase in the number of such scandals," says Dong Jinshi, the executive vice-president of the Beijing-based International Food Packaging Institute and a food safety expert.
Dong's remarks came after the scandal involving beverage giant Coca-Cola was brought to light on April 28. The company's North China arm, Coca-Cola Shanxi Beverages Co Ltd, admitted in a statement that nine batches of beverages manufactured between Feb 4 and Feb 8 contained water with higher levels of chlorine than is normally permitted.
The company said water in its production facilities with small amounts of chlorine flowed into the water used for producing drinks during a pipe-refitting project on Feb 3, due to errors in operation.
The Shanxi Provincial Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision asked the company to stop production on April 28 and rectify the anomalies immediately. The bureau said it had also found other problems with the company's production lines.
Local officials said 76,391 cartons of the contaminated beverage had already hit the markets in Shanxi province and in total 121,058 cartons of beverages were contaminated.
Though the company has indicated that customers can return the contaminated stock and seek replacements, it has made it clear that it would not refund the purchasing cost.
"Unlike developed countries, the penalties for selling contaminated products are very light in China, and international companies are exploiting the law to make substandard products in China," Dong says. "The international companies must realize that such behavior will harm their long-term interests in China."
Wang Jing, a Greenpeace executive looking after the food and agriculture sector in Beijing, told China Daily that international companies often adopt double standards while developing their businesses in China.
Residues from 17 pesticides, including methomyl, a pesticide banned in China, were detected by Greenpeace in some batches of Lipton teas made by food giant Unilever PLC in China.
Seven of these pesticides are banned in the EU, including endosulfan and bifenthrin, which according to EU health officials might jeopardize fetal health and men's fertility, the Greenpeace report said.
The test result was based on samples of Lipton's black, green, jasmine and tieguanyin teas purchased randomly in Beijing during March.
Testing was conducted at a nationally qualified laboratory, although Greenpeace declined to disclose its name to "ensure its independence".
Unilever China later commented on its microblog that all of its products are safe, and are in compliance with Chinese safety standards.
But Wang, who was involved in the investigation, said the products did not match up to EU standards.
"Such products would definitely be turned down by European markets," she says. "It's unfair that products which fail the EU standards are being sold to unsuspecting Chinese customers."
In November, Lipton's tieguanyin tea was found to contain unsafe levels of rare earths, according to the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, the country's top quality watchdog.
In early March, quality concerns escalated after a China Central Television program revealed that a McDonald's outlet in Sanlitun, a popular restaurant and entertainment area in Beijing, was selling expired food.
In the TV program, restaurant employees were seen changing the expiration time on packages and resetting timers on food warmers so that they could keep expired food for a longer time.
One of these incidents involved cheese, a product that turns bad within four hours of its removal from a package. In spite of this, the tainted cheese was used in burgers, while some meat products that had fallen to the ground were picked up and served later in the day.
"All the germs will die if you fry the meat in oil," was how a McDonald's employee at the Sanlitun outlet defended the actions in the TV program.
According to McDonald's food-preservation regulations, the cooked meat served at its restaurants is supposed to be discarded after a certain amount of time.
"It (throwing away expired food) is impossible to do, and no restaurant would do it," said another worker. "We've just been turning a blind eye to the recirculation."
The CCTV program, aired on March 15 every year, was broadcast in conjunction with the International Consumer Rights Day, to reveal business misconducts and to help consumers protect their rights.
In the same program, French supermarket chain Carrefour was accused of deceiving consumers by selling expired meat and chicken, falsely identified as free-range with a higher price. The misdeeds are alleged to have taken place in one of the company's stores in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, according to the program.
"The Chinese government regards both joint ventures and domestic enterprises as Chinese enterprises. Therefore, both will be held responsible for any violations of the country's laws and regulations," said Zhi Shuping, chief of the country's top quality watchdog.
Zhi's remarks at a news conference came in response to questions as to why the CCTV program focused on wrongdoings by international companies. "Such exposure is quite balanced, and both foreign and Chinese firms are involved," he says.
Dong, the food safety researcher, says most international companies have strict regulations on quality and management.
"Their services and products can always be trusted. Problems, such as food safety scandals and service complaints, always happen in local franchise stores and manufacturers since the regulations cannot be implemented effectively," he says.
"Such scandals are good lessons to international companies and stress the need for stricter supervision of their local stores," he says.
As well as risky food products, there have also been serious concerns over gelatin capsules used for drug delivery by many Chinese pharmaceutical companies. The same CCTV program revealed that several commonly used medicines were packed in capsules made from industrial gelatin, which contains a much higher degree of chromium than edible gelatin.
According to the report, the industrial gelatin was made from waste leather at plants in the country's biggest capsule-manufacturing area in East China's Zhejiang province.
The affected drugs so far have been detected in areas such as Beijing, Jiangxi and Jilin provinces, it said.
In response, China's top drug watchdog has suspended the sale of a list of capsules with reported chromium contamination.
The country's top quality watchdog also sent supervision teams to 17 provinces and regions to inspect the production and use of edible gelatin in order to ensure food safety.
(China Daily 05/04/2012 page3)