Vinegar poisoned with antifreeze kills 11 Chinese at Ramadan meal


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The Independent Online

China's appalling food safety record came under the spotlight again yesterday when vinegar tainted with antifreeze was blamed for the death of 11 people at a Ramadan meal.

The incident is the latest in a list of poisoned foods: pork used in dumplings so full of chemicals it glowed in the dark; bean sprouts full of carcinogens; and rice containing heavy metals.

A six-year-old child was among those who died after eating the end-of-day meal, attended by Muslims from the Turkic Uighur people who make up the majority of the population in the western province of Xinjiang.

Scores of people became ill after eating the vinegar. One remained in hospital last night in a critical condition. The Xinhua news agency reported that an "initial probe shows that villagers ate vinegar from two plastic barrels which were used to contain antifreeze, before feeling sick".

As well as lax food safety standards, accidental contamination is also a problem, caused by low hygiene standards, particularly in rural areas, and weak quality control by regulators.

China is cracking down on food safety standards and the government has said it will give rewards to people who report problems, including the illegal use of additives or sale of meat from diseased animals. There have also been problems with contaminated red wine, bleached mushrooms, fake tofu and recycled cooking oil.

This month, Chinese authorities arrested 2,000 suspects and shut down more than 4,900 businesses as part of a national campaign to crack down on illegal additives in food, after a raft of food safety scares. In 2008, at least six children died and nearly 300,000 fell ill from powdered milk laced with melamine, an industrial compound added to fool inspectors by giving misleadingly high results in protein tests.

Last month a Chinese court handed out long sentences, including a suspended death penalty, to five people involved in producing and selling pork tainted with a poisonous chemical.

Widespread nervousness about food remains. Last year, the health ministry was forced to issue a statement that it had found no evidence contaminated milk powder for babies caused three infant girls to grow breasts. In December, there were fears for the safety of hotpot, a national dish, after reports of a chemical additive, although the fears proved to be groundless.

The latest mass contamination took place in a province where recent weeks have seen revived tensions between the Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese. Two knife attacks andclashes between Uighurs and police killed more than 30 people in the resource-rich and strategically vital province, which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and several Central Asian states.