Thursday, October 18, 2012

The China Syndrome in your food

The dust is only just settling on the worst food poisoning scandal in German history. Earlier this month, 11,000 children attending some 500 schools in five east German states were poisoned by strawberries grown in China’s Shandong province.

The Chinese authorities still deny that the 44-tonne shipment of strawberries which entered Germany through Hamburg docks was contaminated. But both   the centre for disease control, the Robert Koch Institute, and German federal authorities have confirmed that frozen strawberries from Shandong were the source of the norovirus bug which caused the gastroenteritis outbreak.

Investigations by Der Spiegel journalists have pieced together the chain of cause and effect behind the affair – and how it could easily happen again, not only in Germany, but anywhere.

In the search for cheap school meals, the authorities in the former East German states turned to the French global food services corporate Sodexo which employs 380,000 people worldwide. It is by far the largest school catering company in Germany.

After German unification, Sodexo invested heavily in disused company cafeterias. One in the city of Halle operates next to a former paint and varnish plant and chemicals are still stored near the kitchens.

In the race to the bottom by local authorities in search for the cheapest possible tender for school meals, Sodexo became sector leader. They produce meals at for a mere €1.55 each in 65 kitchens which supply 200,000 school meals per day. Wages are extremely low according to the NGG catering staff trade union. (In the US, actor Danny Glover got arrested in 2010 supporting Sodexo workers in Maryland.)

Of course, the raw materials for school meals at this price must be sourced from the cheapest sources – and where better than from China? China’s food exports have doubled in recent years with Germany importing €1.4 billion worth. China currently supplies over 80% of world garlic sales. It is the world’s largest exporter of honey and has moved into the global salmon and pizza markets.

But there are huge quality issues. So far in 2012, European Union authorities have received 262 reports about contamination of Chinese food products. Chinese researchers working for food safety have raised similar concerns. In 2008 300,000 Chinese infants were harmed by chemical additives to milk and baby formula products. Food science authority Wang Shiping has pointed out that this was only one of a number of sophisticated methods of fakery, which run ahead of regulators and consumer watchdogs.

In 2007 the former head of China's state Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed for corruption – a scapegoat to show that authorities meant business. Food safety advocate Wu Heng has recently created a website called “Throw it out of the Window”, which highlights food scandals. Even bigger than the additive problem is the excessive use of toxic pesticides and anti-biotics for animals.

Zhou Li, a university lecturer in Beijing, says that Chinese farmers do not eat the food that they produce for the market, preferring that grown by traditional methods. Government bureaucrats and the wealth have their own plots of land so that they can produce food for themselves.

But the Chinese do not have a monopoly on the class divide in food. In the rich town of Constance in Baden-Wurtemberg, for example, subsidised school meals cost €4.50 and are 40% organic. In the eastern state of Thuringia there is a €2.30 limit on school meals and parents have to pay the full cost.

The class divide in food in the UK is equally sharp, as Jamie Oliver amongst others has shown. Whether you live in China, Germany or the UK,  if you have money and time to research where the food on your table comes from, or can grow your own under controlled conditions, you might - just - be able to eat healthily.

But escaping from the corporate drive for profits from food must not remain the privilege of the few. Looking after our shared home earth and our nutrition is not a luxury but a necessity.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

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