The most recent in a seemingly endless march of food and drug safety scandals in China involves toxic gelatin, used in the creation of medical capsules and food products. The incident has drawn a strong outcry from the public, with Chinese bloggers and media urging higher authorities to punish the watchdog officials for dereliction of duty.
The scandal came to public light when Zhou Pu, a news anchorman for the CCTV nightly news, posted a message on his microblog on April 9, warning people to not consume yogurt and jello. “There are terrible dark secrets [behind this],” he said. His posting soon went viral on the web.
On April 15, CCTV, the state broadcaster, reported in a program on quality issues that a total of 13 commonly used drugs were packaged into capsules made from industrial gelatin, which contains up to 90-times more chromium than edible gelatin. The increase was due to the use of a tanning agent normally used to process leather.
Gelatin is used in a wide variety of foods and is also used to make the colored capsules which different kinds of powdered medications are placed inside. Chromium can be toxic and carcinogenic if ingested in excessive amounts.
China’s Ministry of Public Security on April 22 said that it has confiscated 77 million capsules made from industrial gelatin containing chromium, according to a report by state media Xinhua.
The ministry said it arrested nine suspects, detained 54 and ceased 80 industrial gelatin and gel capsule manufacturing lines, the report said.
In an attempt to quell public outrage an official from the Ministry of Health claimed that it is alright to swallow up to six capsules containing excessive chromium. The statement had the opposite effect, however, arousing even more public anger.
In a BBC report, analysts said there are long-standing problems in the gelatin industry in China. With 20 billion Yuan ($3.17 billion) worth of toxic capsules flowing into the market, the damage may be as serious to health as the melamine scandal a few years ago, which caused national outcry and resulted in hundreds of thousands of infants suffering kidney damage, and at least a dozen deaths.
Chinese media reported that industrial gelatin is also used in other industries including the food industry for making dairy products such as ice cream. But that statement was denied by certain food industry enterprises.
A similar situation was exposed in 2004 by Chinese media that some merchants in Fucheng County, Hubei Province, were selling industrial gelatin as edible gelatin.
Mr. Liu from Fucheng County told The Epoch Times, many people in his village used to secretly buy leather waste from leather factories, turning it into gelatin and selling it to candy and popsicle factories. Those individuals had not run into problems because they had been bribing local officials on a monthly basis, he said.
Liu said after the media exposed it, local authorities closed down the illegal factories; but when things cooled down, the merchants started sending money to local officials again and resumed their businesses. Recently, however, the factories were leveled by bulldozers, he added.
Zhao Pu, the first whistle blower in the scandal, disappeared from the public eye after he posted his microblog message. CCTV said that he has been on normal leave.
Sina’s Weibo saw nearly 3.5 million netizens express their frustration with the news of toxic gelatin capsules. Several Chinese media published editorials urging authorities to punish watchdog officials for dereliction of duty, and many bloggers demanded that the Minister of Public Health and director of State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) be removed from their posts.
Blogger Lin Yu wrote, “If this had happened in Western countries, the Minister of Public Health and director of SFDA would have to step down. Yet Chinese officials still stay high and dry. It’s ridiculous.”
Germany-based Chinese writer Zhou Qing told Radio Free Asia, “All the problems of China boil down to the system. The system is corrupt from head to toe.”