Beijing (AsiaNews) – Chinese authorities have seized more than 100,000 tonnes of smuggled meat – some of it more than 40 years old.
State media report that the nation-wide police operation targeted 21 criminal gangs, with 20 people arrested in Hunan province alone.
The frozen meat, estimated to be worth about US$ 483 million was brought in from countries like Brazil and India. To sidestep import restrictions, it was smuggled into the mainland via Hong Kong and Vietnam,
"It was smelly and I nearly threw up when I opened the door," an official from Hunan province.
Yang Bo, an anti-smuggling official in Hunan province, was quoted as saying that the food was often transported in ordinary rather than refrigerated vehicles to save money. "So the meat had often thawed out several times before reaching customers," he noted.
In the most recent case, officers in Changsha, Hunan province, found 800 tonnes of smuggled frozen meat, including beef, chicken feet and duck necks, widely used in Chinese cuisine. Frozen beef is a key ingredient of Chongqing- and Beijing-style hotpot.
A customs investigation in Chongqing, which began last May, found at least 8,130 tonnes of beef smuggled from India. It had been received by a wholesaler and sold to hotpot restaurants, between June 2013 and July 2014.
The muscle fibre of aged frozen meat is darker, said Guangzhou-based food critic Lao Yibo. When meat is refrozen, it appears watery when served.
In view of the situation, he recommends diners choose light cuisine and avoid heavily marinated or strongly flavoured hotpots.
In Hong Kong, the issue has become a hot topic. On the South China Morning Post, one reader commented, “The only entity that could afford to maintain such high quantities of food for 4 decades and afford the refrigeration costs, is a government organization”.
Another blamed Chinese attitudes toward food. “The funny thing is we get what we pay for,” one post said. “[T]here was the other day advertising for 2 dollar sushi roll, all frozen fish, but Hong Kong people queue up like crazy to eat this poison food.”
In general though, the prevailing attitude is one of hopelessness. In fact, the lack of food safety and other food scandals seem to be an incurable plague in mainland China.
In recent years, thanks to the lack of proper government controls, the Asian giant has been at the centre of a rash of food-related scandals.
In 2008, six babies died and about 300,000 children became ill after drinking baby formula adulterated with melamine, a nitrogen-rich compound added to boost the apparent protein content in powder milk.
Other cases involved toothpaste made with chemical reagents, rat sold as lamb, glue-tainted shrimps, and even pesticide-laden green tea.