05/11/2007, 00.00
CHINA
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Toxic environment: soil with heavy metals and cancerous fish

Pollution is poisoning cultivated land and being absorbed by fish. Insufficient health and safety inspections fail to prevent frequent cases of serious, sometimes fatal, toxic poisoning. In Shanghai, mobile testing units will be put in place to test food within half an hour. The second part of our dossier.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Shanghai will use mobile testing units to analyse food within 30 minutes. The announcement given yesterday by Beijing shows the government wants to win back the trust of national and overseas consumers. But the polluted environment is poisoning cultivation and fish and there have been frequent cases of toxic poisoning, even fatal ones.

Li Jie, deputy director of the Shanghai Food and Drug Supervision Institute, said the mobile units “can tell the safety of most food products within 30 minutes” with tests carried out immediately on meat and vegetables even in markets. But they will be operational only at the end of 2007.

Meanwhile, Beijing has ordered blanket testing on foods like wheat gluten and rice protein, ingredients which were discovered by the United States to contain melamine. And it has banned the export of melamine and other additives used to make food seem more nutritious.

But the problem is across the board. In April, China’s Ministry of Land and Resources admitted that more than one-tenth of farming land was poisoned by pollution and that each year approximately 12 million tons of grain were contaminated by heavy metals and had to be destroyed (with losses of more than 20 billion yuan, 2.54 billion dollars). The state news agency, Xinhua, said about 25 million acres of farmland was contaminated, another 5 million acres were watered by contaminated water, and about 330,000 acres were covered with solid waste. The excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers and injections to increase the weight of meat make things worse. For years, Hong Kong has imposed severe checks and bans on food imports from China.

Rivers and lakes are among the most polluted in the world: in 2007, Mississippi and Alabama banned the Chinese catfish because it was found to contain antibiotics prohibited in the USA. In October 1996, Taiwan banned the importation of hairy crabs from Yangcheng Lake in eastern Jiangsu because they contained nitrofuran, a toxic and carcinogenic substance. In August 2005, Hong Kong found green malachite, a substance that could cause cancer, in Chinese fresh water fish and eels.

Health and safety monitoring is seriously lacking in the country: there are stories of car oil being used instead of cooking oil and liquor made with alcohol for industrial use (9 deaths in 2004). In August 2006, around 40 people got meningitis after eating raw or undercooked snails in a chain of restaurants in Sichuan. In July 2005, in Sichuan, around 40 people were killed by an infection of streptococcus suis, contracted from infected pigs that they had killed, handled or eaten. On 26 April, in Zhadian, prefecture of Honghe in southern Yunnan, a seven-year-old boy died and another 55 people were hospitalized after eating beef stew that contained more than 12g of sodium nitrite per kilogram (a food additive that is fatal in such quantities). In early April, in the main hospital of Harbin (Heilongjiang) one person died and more than 200 were poisoned when they ate porridge in the hospital canteen that contained rat poison. In November 2006, China culled more than 5,000 geese fed with a dye that made eggs redder and more valuable, and also made them full of Sudan II, a carcinogenic substance. In 2004, at least 13 newborn babies died in eastern Anhui after they were fed with contaminated children’s milk that had absolutely no nutritional value.

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