China Takes Out Its Food Safety Problems On Walmart

By: Michele Wolfson

This year's news headlines have focused on how food-borne illnesses are affecting people globally. Between E. Coli outbreaks in Europe and Salmonella inhabiting cantaloupes and pine nuts in America, the biggest offender of food-safety has been China. The Chinese government insists that it is cracking down on food violators and has chosen to take Walmart, an American supermarket chain, as it's next target. On October 25th, Walmart reopened 13 stores in the southwestern region of Chongqing that were closed for two weeks as punishment for mislabeling a pork product.

Attention to the food safety issue in this country was heightened when the 2008 Olympics were held in Beijing, and that same year poisonous milk killed six children and sickened thousands. Food-related scandals are not a new problem for China and have caused major political embarrassment. In 2004, investigators found that a factory in Hubei province was making soy sauce from human hair. Exploding watermelons was a serious fruit catastrophe in eastern China, and vinegar tainted with anti-freeze killed eleven people and sickened 150. Both incidences occurred recently in the summer of 2011.

This year, China's authorities announced that the use of the steroid clenbuterol was illegal after it was discovered in pork products back in March. Although the chemical can make meat leaner, it is also the cause of heart palpitations, diarrhea, and muscle tremors. Conditions of pork sold in China had gotten so bad that there have been reports of uncooked pork that glows blue in the dark due to phosphorous bacteria.

Comparatively speaking, it seems that the beef officials hold with Walmart's pork are minor. Bureaucrats said Walmart had mislabeled ordinary pork and sold it as a more expensive organic product. In addition to closing several stores, the company was also fined more than $575,000. Two Walmart employees were arrested and another 25 are being investigated. Economist reports that "The company's head in China and a senior vice-president resigned (though Walmart denies any link)."  Great measures are being put into effect to right this wrong. A 60-member team was sent to Chongqing to further investigate the issue.

It isn't the first time Walmart has been scolded for their wrongdoings overseas. The chain has been punished 21 times in Chongqing since 2006 for a multitude of transgressions, ranging from false advertising to selling out-of-date food. This latest sanctions against Walmart had been the toughest imposed by the Chongqing authorities on any retailer to date.

China has more than a few food-related product quality scandals to deal with at the moment and the Administration of Industry and Commerce (AIC), who are the regulators, say that serious crackdowns are imperative. Particular regions such as Chongqing are known for taking more of an interest in coming off as tough when it comes to these kinds of issues. The Chinese government is worried about the public's deep mistrust in its ability to supervise the food market. Alternatively, many are wondering if they are picking on Walmart because they are an American owned company and therefore are being held to higher standards. Or, if Walmart's poor track record in Chongqing is valid, then perhaps scrutinizing their food quality control will set an example.

Photo: Wootang01

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