China pig crisis: Drug residues in pork

In China, more than 2,000 tons of fresh pork and pork products — at a minimum, 4 million pounds — have been recalled because the meat has tested positive for clenbuterol, a stimulant that is illegal in food-producing animals not only in China but in Europe and the United States. Another 1.6 million pigs are being tested.

The story has been unfolding for the past week without much notice from Western media, but it has been heavily covered in China, even in English-language media there.

Clenbuterol, which lingers in muscle tissue for months and concentrates in some organs, is hazardous to humans because of its stimulant properties: It revs up the heart and gives you the shakes, and can be especially dangerous for pregnant women. (Here’s the data sheet from the Food Safety and Inspection Service.) If it sounds familiar, that’s because its stimulant qualities also make it a performance enhancer — and thus a banned drug for elite athletes, including a listing on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List. Tour de France winner Alberto Contador was temporarily banned from cycling this year after a positive clenbuterol test, and US Olympic swimmer Jessica Hardy was found positive for the drug in 2008 (a finding she blamed on an allegedly tainted supplement). Clenbuterol’s a common subject on body-building forums (here’s one example) for its perceived ability to build lean muscle while diminishing fat.

And that may have been the motivation in China: putting lean weight, inexpensively, on pigs.

Here’s what’s known:

On March 17, the Chinese TV network CCTV reported that 19 pigs at a slaughterhouse in Henan province, part of a lot of 689, had tested positive for clenbuterol in their urine. About 20 people — farmers, middlemen, quarantine inspectors and a buyer for the processing company, Jiyuan Shuanghui Food Co., Ltd. — were arrested.

On March 18, Xinhua News reported that the number of positive tests had grown to 52 pigs out of 1,512, on nine farms tested, and the number of people in police custody had grown to 30. Plus, the scandal had spread to a second province, Jiangsu, after 20 randomly picked pigs out of 264 from Henan tested positive at a slaughterhouse in Nanjing. Concern over the brewing scandal drew the central government’s Ministry of Commerce into the issue; the agency urged the company where the tainted pork was first found — which happens to be a subsidiary of China’s largest meat processor — to suspend production and start an internal investigation.

On March 19, the central government convened an emergency meeting of pig farmers, meat processors and food retailers, and two days later ordered provincial authorities to start a crackdown that extends to checking backyard pigs.

And on March 25, the government released its annual food safety plan and put special emphasis on banning clenbuterol and tracking down illegal users.

Notably, the more-free parts of the Chinese media are pushing the government to do more. China Daily editorialized on Thursday:

Why can’t quarantine workers go to pig farms in a random way to check the pigs? Why do they have to wait for the pig urine sent by pig raisers? Why aren’t pigs randomly checked immediately before they are butchered? What is both funny and sad is the fact that a local bureau of animal husbandry in central China’s Henan Province checked a problematic pig farm and 98.8 percent of the pigs tested were passed safe on March 15. But an investigation by reporters after the check found that the farm still feeds pigs clenbuterol, which was banned nine years ago.

The revelation that pigs are being fed growth hormones that are considered harmful to humans so the animals develop more muscle and less fat has shaken consumers’ confidence in pork, just as the melamine scandal did with milk. Anyone involved, whether pig raisers or quarantine checkers, must be brought to justice…

The general public wants to be told how problematic pigs can pass a series of tests before they are butchered and how the meat containing harmful substances can go through a series of tests and still end up in the mouths of consumers.They also want to know whether the culprits, including pig raisers who have fed pigs harmful chemicals and those who took money to turn a blind eye to the problematic pigs and meat will get the punishments they deserve.

This isn’t the first time clenbuterol has been found in pork in China. In 2009, 70 people in Guangdong province were hospitalized for stimulant poisoning after eating organ meats from contaminated pigs; in 2006, more than 300 people in Shanghai were sickened. In January, two months before this scandal surfaced, the AP’s Alexa Olesen wrote a prescient long takeout on the complexity of controlling clenbuterol abuse, especially in rural areas.

Here’s a question: Activism for safe food in the United States was arguably ignited by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a novel that served as an expose of the contamination and filthy conditions he witnessed working undercover in Chicago’s meatpacking plants. There was such a public outcry at his revelations that the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the first US food-safety legislation, was written and passed in the same year the book came out. The Jungle was so influential that, 105 years later, it is still in print.

I wonder: Who will write a Jungle for China? And given the repression that seems to be practiced against whistleblowers there, if anyone did, would it see print?



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