China: Rat meat sold as lamb in latest food scandal

This is the latest food scandal to shock the Chinese public. Picture: Getty
This is the latest food scandal to shock the Chinese public. Picture: Getty
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CHINESE police have broken a crime ring that passed off more than $1 million (£640,000) in rat and small mammal meat as mutton, authorities said, in a food safety crackdown that coincides with a bird flu outbreak and other environmental pressures.

Authorities have arrested 904 suspects since the end of January for selling and producing fake or tainted meat products, China’s ministry of public security said yesterday.

During the crackdown,

police discovered one suspect surnamed Wei who had used additives to spice up and sell rat, fox and mink meat at markets in Shanghai and Jiangsu province.

Police arrested 63 suspects connected to the crime ring in a case valued at more than 10 million yuan (£1m) in sales since 2009.

Despite persistent efforts by police, “food safety crimes are still prominent, and new situations are emerging with new characteristics”, the ministry’s statement said, citing “responsible officials”.

Police confiscated more than 20,000 tonnes of fake or inferior meat products after breaking up illegal food plants during the

nationwide operation, the ministry said.

Food safety and environmental pollution are chronic problems in China, and public anxiety over cases of fake or toxic food often spreads quickly.

In April, many consumers lost their appetite for poultry as an outbreak of the H7N9 bird flu virus spread. Sales dropped by 80 per cent in eastern China, where the bird flu has been most prevalent, although experts stress that cooked chicken is safe.

In March, more than 16,000 rotting pigs were found floating in one of Shanghai’s main water sources, triggering a public outcry. Over-crowding at pig farms was likely behind the die-off and their disposal in the Huangpu river.

The public security ministry said police had confiscated more than 15 tonnes of tainted pork in Anhui province, although as much as 60 tonnes had been sold in Anhui and Fujian provinces since mid-2012.

However, it was the rodent meat that people could not stomach, with internet users turning to the popular micro-blogging site Sina Weibo to vent their outrage.

“Rats? How disgusting. Everything we eat is poison,” one user wrote.

“How many rats does it take to put together a sheep?” said another baffled and angry user of Sina Weibo. “Is it cheaper to raise rats than sheep? Or does it just not feel right unless you’re making fakes?”

China’s prime minister since March, Li Keqiang, has said that improving food safety was a priority – one of the main grievances of citizens that he has said his government would tackle.

However, similar vows by his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, ran up against inadequate resources and buck-passing among rival agencies, and protectionism by local officials, said Mao Shoulong, a professor of public policy at Renmin University in Beijing.

“The US and Europe can’t eradicate these problems either, but they are even more complicated in China,” said Mr Mao, who has studied food and pharmaceutical safety regulation.