HONG KONG — Even for China’s scandal-numbed diners, news that the lamb simmering in the pot really may be rat took the country’s endless outrages about food hazards into a new realm of disgust.
In an announcement intended to show that the government is serious about improving food safety, the Ministry of Public Security said via the Internet on Thursday that police had caught traders in eastern China who bought rat, fox and mink flesh and sold it as mutton. But that and other cases of meat smuggling, faking and adulteration that were also featured in Chinese newspapers and websites Friday were unlikely to instill confidence in consumers already queasy over many reports about meat, fruit and vegetables laden with disease, toxins, banned dyes and preservatives.
Sixty-three people were arrested and are accused of “buying fox, mink and rat and other meat products that had not undergone inspection,” which they doused in gelatin, red pigment and nitrates, and sold as mutton in Shanghai and adjacent Jiangsu province for about $1.6 million, according to the ministry’s statement. The account did not explain how the traders acquired the rats and other creatures.
Residents of Shanghai recently endured the sight of thousands of dead hogs floating down a nearby river, apparently the dumped victims of disease in piggeries upstream.
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The arrests were part of a nationwide operation since late January to “attack food-safety crimes and defend the safety of the dining table,” the ministry said. Police arrested 904 people suspected of selling fake, diseased, toxic or adulterated meat, and broke up 1,721 illicit factories, workshops and shops. Yet the ministry acknowledged that diners still had reason to worry.
In food-safety campaigns in past years “some serious problems have been dealt with swiftly and vigorously, but for a variety of reasons, food-safety crimes remain serious, and are displaying new circumstances and features,” an unnamed senior official said in the statement.
“For example, there is selling of meat injected with water and meat from animals dead from disease, as well as passing off relatively cheap types of meat as relatively expensive beef and mutton.”
China’s prime minister since March, Li Keqiang, has said that improving food safety was a priority, but similar vows by his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, ran up against inadequate resources, buck-passing and muddle among rival agencies, and protectionism by local officials, said Mao Shoulong, a professor of public policy at Renmin University in Beijing.
The cases described included a company in Inner Mongolia, a northeast region of China, caught with 23 tons of fake beef jerky and unprocessed frozen meat adulterated with flavoring chemicals and swarming with bacteria. Six suspects in Guizhou province, in southwest China, were caught with 8.8 tons of “toxic chicken feet” adulterated with illegal additives. Chicken feet, steamed or boiled with spices, are a popular dish in parts of China.
The Ministry of Public Security also described cases of traders selling pigs and ducks that had died from disease, and of another perennial problem: pigs injected with water to increase the weight, and price, of the pork sold on the market.
The fraud sometimes had deadly results. In February, the police in Shaanxi province in northwest China arrested a suspect accused of selling a lamb carcass so heavily laced with pesticide that one person died after eating the barbecued meat.
In another show of official efforts to stem public ire over menaces to food safety, China’s Supreme People’s Court, the country’s highest court, on Friday issued guidelines for sternly punishing related offenses, such as taking “ditch” cooking oil that has been used and dumped in drains and processing it to be resold for cooking.