Do bananas spread Sars? China gripped by health scare

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The Independent Online

The word on the streets of China's cities is that bananas from the southern island of Hainan can cause Sars. And that Magician brand instant noodles poisons you because they use oil extracted from human corpses provided by funeral homes.

China is in the grip of a food safety scare, and although it has generated a number of bizarre rumours circulating in frantic text messages, the issue poses a serious potential threat to international trade.

Late last year, Hong Kong government chemists detected in salted duck eggs the Sudan II industrial dye, which was fed to the birds to make the yolk in their eggs extraordinarily red, a colour Chinese consumers see as a sign of high quality.

The Chinese government has pledged to get to the bottom of the scandal - and introducing standardised practices when it comes to food safety has become a major issue.

In Beijing, the city authorities have also announced plans to better monitor food products entering the capital after several food safety scandals emerged. Such is the mood there that some people are now saying that bad food, rather than lobbying about controversial issues such as Tibet, could be the main risk to the Olympic Games in the city next year.

Billions of pounds worth of counterfeit and substandard goods, from snack bars to fake liquor and medicines, to face creams, are produced every year in China.

Counterfeiting often extends to branded foods and you have to read the labels carefully in shops to make sure that you are getting the right food. Alcoholic drinks are particularly prone to copying and it is important to check to see if your beer or your breakfast cereal is the real thing.

China revealed in 2004, in one of its most highly publicised health scandals, that 13 babies had died from malnutrition in the eastern province of Anhui after being fed fake baby milk powder. But the problem is going global, spreading way beyond China's borders.

Chinese-made food products which are exported are being examined for toxins after safety breaches involving poisons in dog food and toothpaste, following reports of tainted products arriving in the Dominican Republic and Panama.

The Dominican Republic authorities said they had removed 10,000 tubes of the Chinese toothpaste brands Excel and Mr Cool from shelves after learning they contained diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze and brake fluid.

During talks this week between Washington and Beijing, the United States said food quality from China was a "top concern" and called on Beijing to improve food safety standards. The Americans want China to make food regulation more transparent, and to allow their audit teams to travel to China to examine the food factories and farms.

The Chinese government has launched investigations into the use of melamine - a non-food-related, industrial additive that found its way into the food chain and caused at least 16 pets to die in the US - and the companies exporting toothpaste containing the lethal chemical.

Meanwhile, the company which makes instant noodles under the "Magician" brand has had to take out newspaper advertisements to publicise the findings of scientific research showing that their products were not made from human body oils.

The manufacturers believe their competitors started the rumour, but everyone is suffering as sales of instant noodles, which are to Chinese cuisine what fish and chips are to British food, are dropping sharply.

A mass outbreak of food poisoning could be extremely damaging for the image of the Olympic Games, which begin in August next year. One scenario being thought through is if a team of top athletes came down with Beijing Belly just before a race.

To avoid that nightmare, the city is planning to increase rewards for uncovering unlawful production methods from 10,000 yuan (£660) to 50,000 yuan, the Beijing News reported.

Wang Weicheng, a Beijing city official, said that the city would "set up a supervision system to analyse food additives, and intensify management of the approval system and record-keeping of food additive enterprises". A system to trace food and food products to their origins would also be put in place and it would also strictly monitor the use of fertiliser and pesticides.

"Goods from companies that don't meet production standards will be firmly kept out of the market," the media report said.

The Sars banana rumour is possibly the most bizarre element to the food-safety scare, as there had never been a case of humans contracting viruses from plants, the Agriculture Ministry said. "It is purely a rumour and it is impossible for bananas to contain Sars-like viruses," it added. "The spreaders of the false information either have inadequate relevant scientific knowledge or have ulterior motives."

How bloggers blew the whistle

Information about the current scandal over Chinese food safety standards has largely been facilitated by new technologies, as consumers use text messages on their mobile phones and blog entries to communicate their concerns and advice.

In the US, pet-owners ran blogs which highlighted and commented on various media reports, official statements and gossip.

David Goldstein's blog HorsesAss.org exposed the fact that melamine-laced pet food was recycled as feed for domestic pork.

Bloggers dug up and posted documents, such as the Food and Drug Administration's letter advising that pregnant investigators not examine human foods that the FDA has said repeatedly are safe.

Mr Goldstein reported how tests conducted at a US FDA laboratory on behalf of the Arkansas Department of Health and Human Services had detected melamine in at least one sample of imported Chinese catfish.

And while officials are downplaying the health hazard, this latest finding suggests that the human food supply is much more widely contaminated than previously acknowledged.

In China, blogs played a big role but in many cases it was SMS text messages on mobile phones which got the headlines out about food safety issues. This was particularly true in two of the biggest examples of food safety hysteria in recent days, namely that bananas from the southern Chinese island of Hainan can cause SARS. Or that Magician brand instant noodles cause poisoning because they use oil extracted from human corpses provided by funeral homes.

Mobile phone penetration is extremely high, while China has more than 137 million internet users and more than 20 million of them are bloggers.

The government has been struggling to find a way to control their output without completely choking the positive uses of the internet on areas such as trade.

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