Chinese Food Safety Lapses Sign of Bigger Problems

Aug. 8, 2007
It will be a long time before what I’m calling "the China Syndrome" ceases to be a newsworthy issue in food processing.

The once most-favored nation engaged in greed at a level of colossal stupidity in its failure to control rampant corruption in an industry where such corruption is nothing short of suicidal.

The U.S. and EU (et alia) would have to be just as inept for China to gain back the considerable ground and billions of dollars it's lost. But the U.S., which has a comparatively excellent food and ingredient safety record, still has its work cut out for it.

Take the meat, poultry and seafood part of our half-trillion dollar food-processing industry. The shift toward what is essentially self-inspection, the reduced USDA involvement and what amounts in many plants to hostile work environments for a mostly immigrant labor force, created a basis for conditions that has been compared by some columnists to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."

The situation is probably not as dire as 101 years ago -- no workers have been turned into sausage -- but recalls of meat due to E. Coli 0157:H7 or other contamination forces meat processors to face up to the fact that sick or dead customers don't return and pull hundreds, even thousands of other customers away.

But there are still far too many recalls. The industry is currently in the throes of a bad one, this time due botulism, that could spell the end of Augusta, Ga.-based Castleberry Foods Inc. At this writing, nearly 100 Castleberry meat-containing products have been recalled. This makes 20 meat and poultry product recalls noted by the U.S.D.A. so far this year, following 34 in 2006 and 52 in 2005. Numbers of recalls have ranged from 25 (1996) to 126 (2002) since 1994.

Then there are the issues of cruelty-free processing, fair labor practices, fair trade, eco-friendliness and sustainability. Although the current political battle to lump these in with organic certification seems to me illogical (see "Well Noted: Organic by Any Other Name,"), there is no denying they are a formidable combined force when it comes to consumer demand.

Don't take my word for it; take Burger King's, MacDonald's and Wendy's. These fast-food giants and other restaurants implemented the humongous paradigm shift of turning proactive instead of reactive. They've taken steps to comply with as much of the above as possible, demanding such ingredients as more humanely produced eggs, locally sourced meats and range-raised chickens.

Meanwhile, Tyson Foods Inc., a behemoth of conventional protein production, suffered its first annual financial loss in years and was just hit with a $339,500 fine for dozens of "serious and repeat" violations of health and safety. Tyson's finances, of course, are complicated. Yet there's a reason the company also just announced (and put a $70 million ad campaign behind) its poultry products going antibiotic-free.

The American Meat Institute has increased its focus on animal welfare. The group initiated new standards recently to encourage more "humane" slaughter practices. For example, upside-down slaughter is allowed only when "absolutely necessary."

Public pressure is ultimately a good thing. When processors and purchasers take quick action to get in front of consumer demand, they position themselves to take up the slack left by the companies, and countries, who bury their heads in the sand, expending their energy on reacting instead of acting, defending instead of progressing.

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