Meat Processing Company Rebuilds Public Trust

CHINA - The head of one of China's largest meat processing companies has been receiving special reports via text message every morning for the last two years.
calendar icon 2 April 2013
clock icon 5 minute read

The messages are brief quarantine reports of his company's products, including how many pigs were found infected with a disease or had excessive levels of fodder additives, said Wan Long, chairman of Shuanghui Group.

"Of the 170,270 pigs purchased on 5 March, 29 were found to have disease and none had clenbuterol," read a text he received on 6 March.

Mr Long, 73, a deputy to the National People's Congress, said the company attached more importance to food safety after it was found to have sold chemically tainted products two years ago.

In March 2011, China Central Television reported that Shuanghui Group had bought pigs that had been fed fodder containing clenbuterol, a harmful additive known as "lean meat powder" because it can promote lean meat growth in livestock.

In 2002, the central government banned the use of lean meat powder, such as ractopamine and clenbuterol, in feed additives and drinking water for livestock.

The scandal aroused public concern on food safety again, coming as it did not long after Sanlu Group was found to have sold melamine-tainted milk in 2008. The contaminated milk killed six infants and poisoned more than 300,000 others.

Shuanghui Group's sales slumped immediately after its own contamination scandal, causing an economic loss of 1.5 billion yuan ($241 million) from 16 to 31 March 2011, Mr Long said.

Police detained 96 people, including the producers, sellers and buyers of the banned additive, the following April. Three workers from Shuanghui Group's purchasing department were among them.

Mr Long made two public apologies and vowed to take tougher quarantine measures to guarantee food safety.

Today, instead of making sample tests, the company requires every newly purchased pig to be checked for diseases and food-additive levels.

"Testing each pig costs more than 100 million yuan a year, but it shows a more responsible attitude to the health of our consumers," Mr Long said.

To regain consumer trust, Shuanghui Group invited the public to visit its factories and has made its production process more transparent.

The company buys pigs from large farms rather than small operations, which decreases the risk of buying pigs that fail to meet standards, Wan said.

Cao Cunzheng, mayor of Luohe, where Shuanghui Group is based, said the city has introduced policies to support the development of modern pig farms.

"Owners of large pig farms are trained by the government in food safety issues," he said.

In a motion to the NPC, Mr Long called for stricter law enforcement. "In many cities, checks of food products are always based on campaigns at some special days such as World Consumer Rights Day, while the establishment of a long-term system is ignored," he said.

Supervision of food products involves many authorities, such as those in charge of agriculture, industry and commerce, health and quarantine, which making the task more complex and less efficient, Mr Long said.

Guo Gengmao, Party chief of Henan province, said the provincial authorities have taken more measures to ensure food safety after the Shuanghui Group scandal.

"We have stricter measures for food products, from production to circulation and sales," he said during a plenary meeting of the National People's Congress annual session on 6 March.

Shuanghui Group's sales reached 56 billion yuan last year, which has restored it to its historical peak, Mr Long said.

"Many friends told me to be strong (after the scandal), and many people predicted my company will become the second Sanlu," which went bankrupt, he said. "But we regained the consumers' confidence and trust."

Lu Zhangong, vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and former Party chief of Henan, said the government also encourages the media to supervise the food production process.

"Shuanghui Group should thank CCTV for revealing the problem," he said on 7 March during a group discussion at the NPC annual session. "Only by exposing the problems will the issue be highlighted by the government and public."

Ma Jianguo, a professor at Jiangnan University and a member of the National Committee of the CPPCC, said food safety has developed from an industrial problem into a social concern owing to insufficient supervision.

"We have never lacked laws or regulations for supervising food safety. In fact, we have too many, and some contradict each other, creating loopholes," Professor Jianguo said. "It's urgent to have a comprehensive law to oversee the whole industrial chain."

Cao Xiaohong, president of Tianjin University of Science and Technology and a member of the CPPCC, said food safety concerns will not be resolved in the short term because of the social credibility crisis.

"It's necessary to inform the public about food additives, which are necessary in food processing and not as destructive as imagined," Professor Jianguo said.

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