China's war on food additives a difficult task
By Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China
One year after the melamine contamination that aroused wide public concern and caused thousands of children to fall ill, the Chinese authorities have launched a new round of campaigns to clean up the food additives market.
In late October, the Ministry of Health, General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), Ministry of Agriculture and six other government departments issued a new requirement demanding that local government across China proactively implement thorough inspections and harsh penalties against those illegally or improperly adding food additives over the next two years.
© HEPENG JIA
The measures followed a notice that the government would not ratify any 'unnecessary' food additives in the future.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Health, together with a number of other government departments, announced that a nationwide inspection campaign carried out between December 2008 and the end of March 2009 identified more than 7600 cases of illegally adding additives to food, involving Yuan67 million (£5.9 million) and leading to 30 arrests. The campaign screened more than 5.7 million food producers and dealers, and covered 71,198 kinds of products.
In one of the most widespread cases, Mengniu, a leading Chinese milk producer, was found to have added an unapproved protein called osteoblast milk protein (OMP) to its milk to improve taste. Mengniu claimed OMP was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food additive, but in media interviews the FDA denied the claim. The health ministry banned Mengniu from adding OMP to its milk products, but eventually concluded that the additive is not harmful to health.
Good or bad?
The war against melamine and OMP has raised widespread concern among the Chinese public. In a survey carried earlier this year by the largest Chinese online portal Sina.com.cn and the magazine Mass Health, more than 90 per cent of respondents thought that food additives threatened food safety to some degree, while less than 40 per cent considered food additives harmless.
But Chen Junshi, a renowned food safety researcher at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, says that when properly used, food additives are not a threat to food safety.
'Melamine is not a legal food additive,' said Chen at a public speech at the annual meeting of China Association for Science and Technology in early September. 'I have not heard of any major food safety crisis caused by properly used food additives.'
Cai Tongyi, a professor at the Food Engineering School of China Agricultural University, agrees. 'Media exposure of the food safety crisis has been hyped,' Cai told Chemistry World. 'If there are no food additives, we could not have food preserved for so long, breads that are [such good consistency] and chocolates that are very tasty.'
By the end of 2008, Chinese government had approved more than 2,000 kinds of food additives, most of them chemicals developed by Western countries and tested in various forms.
For a new food additive to be approved in China, there must be four levels of testing, including animal toxicology, efficiency, effects, and genetic toxicology, but certain steps can be omitted if the food additives in question have been widely used or tested in foreign countries, says Ye Shuimao, an expert at Zhejiang branch of AQSIQ.
'People always think [food's] natural status without additives is better, but in terms of chemistry, it is unreasonable,' Ye wrote in a 2005 paper.1 'We cannot conclude natural products are definitely safer than man-made chemicals, including additives.'
Yu Jianping, a manager of Shanghai Yiyuan Company, a leading food additive developer, says the problem is not food additives themselves, but their abuse and poor regulation.
'When you buy a biscuit in a supermarket, you can find many chemical names - sometimes up to more than a dozen - which are various additives,' Yu told Chemistry World.
In the West you don't find so many additives, he adds, because in China manufacturers are pursuing many properties that nature simply cannot supply. For example, they want the food to keep longer, to taste better, and the ingredients to combine together well, all at the same time. Without massive use of additives, this is impossible.
Another major reason for the large number of additives in use, Yu explains, is that Chinese manufacturers want to lower costs and avoid expensive high quality materials, so they add more chemical additives, such as preservatives, to extend the food's shelf life.
In addition, raw material supply is also a problem, both in terms of the origin of food additives, and because even more additives are often mixed in during food production to deal with or hide harmful additives present in the raw material.
'For example, in order to improve cows' milk productivity, Chinese milk farmers use more hormones, and in order to prevent illness, they use antibiotics. All of them definitely enter the milk products,' says Yu.
Meanwhile, in order to hide the use of illegal antibiotics, milk farmers or producers add ?-lactamase to the milk.
In terms of regulation, the millions of small food producers across China make any inspection measures difficult to implement.
Yu welcomes the current punitive measures, saying after the crackdown on illegal and poorly-regulated additive makers, sales of his company's high-quality, but highly-priced, products have dramatically improved.
'Eventually, the solution relies on consumers' rising awareness of food quality,' he says. 'Once they know cheaper food with too many low-quality additives are not a good choice, they will push food makers and then food additive manufacturers to improve their standards,' he says.
1. S Ye, Drug Evaluation (in Chinese), Vol. 2, No. 2, 2005, 81-90