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China's Cadmium-Tainted Rice Scandal
The news, reported by Xinhua, that rice believed grown in China's Hunan province contains unacceptable traces of cadmium, is the latest scandal to beset the country's food chain and probably means imports will have to rise sharply to meet the shortfall.
China had already emerged as the second-largest importer in 2012 at 2.6 million tonnes, according to Dr Samarendu Mohanty, economist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. That was four times the country's 2011 imports and the amount of imports was already expected to grow before the cadmium-tainted rice was discovered.
The fouled samples were found at rice mills in Guangzhou. Hunan, a heavily farmed agricultural province that borders Guangdong, produces 25 million tonnes or 12 percent of China's 200 million tonne annual rice crop. Cadmium, a toxic heavy metal that can seriously damage the kidneys and cause other health problems, has been found in 44.4 percent of rice and rice products tested so far this year in Guangzhou.
The crisis in Chinese rice comes at a time when prices have been stable in Asia because of plentiful stocks – for now, particularly Thailand, which has 17 million tonnes bulging in warehouses because of a government scheme to buy the political loyalty of farmers by paying them 40 percent more than the market price.
"In the past few months," Mohanty wrote, "rice prices have come under pressure because of weak demand and the large stockpiles in key exporting countries. The strong harvest from the wet-season crop in Asia has helped to lower export quotations from Vietnam, Pakistan, and India, But Thai prices remain unruffled by the global situation mainly because of the mortgage scheme. This mortgage scheme has also created more uncertainty in the global market as traders do not know when mortgaged rice will be released and at what price."
Thailand has been expected to start begin to dump its stockpiles relatively soon as a lack of storage space is starting to be critical. But if Thailand were to find a buyer in China, it would probably have to be a sharply reduced price that would cost the Thai treasury millions of dollars. Last September, the government put 763,856 tonnes of rice on the market at an average of US$547 per tonne but sold less than a third of what it put up for auction – 232,000 tonnes.
It is hardly the first time Chinese rice has been found to be contaminated. In 2011, data collected by Nanjing Agricultural University found that in some areas 60 percent of samples were contaminated, some with up to five times the legal limit of various heavy metals.
Although the investigations haven't been completed, the cadmium is believed to have entered the crop through polluted soil. China's heavy metal mining, in which tailings often haven't been quarantined, allowing water runoff into lakes and rivers, has created an enormous environmental problem.
The announcement of the contaminated rice is the latest depressing episode in a long list of scandals that make it questionable whether anybody would want to eat any food originating anywhere in China. It follows by just a few weeks the announcement in early May that more than 900 people had been arrested for taking meat from rats, foxes, mink and other animals and processed it with additives to sell it as lamb.
Scandals over tainted baby formula have led to a roaring industry in which expatriate Chinese buy milk powder formula from as far away as the United States, Europe and Australia and New Zealand to ship it into China because nobody trusts the local products since hundreds of babies were sickened several years ago with milk powder adulterated with melamine, causing kidney stones. In March, Hong Kong threatened travelers with two years in jail and HK$500,000 in fines for possession of two cans of milk powder in an effort to stem the flow into China.
Other problems have included a report last November that Chinese alcohol producer Jinggui Liqour Co. was caught adding three types of plasticizers, which reportedly improve taste and appearance but are extremely hazardous, to its Maotai liquor. One of the plasticizers was 260 percent above the acceptable level. The chemical can change hormone levels, damage the digestive system and even cause liver cancer.
Illegal chemicals have been found in bean sprouts in Shenyang and long beans in Wuhan, Almost half the country's dairies were ordered closed because of the addition of leather-hydrolyzed protein which, like melamine, appears to boost the protein content of milk, thereby enhancing its value. "Aluminum dumplings" were found in Shenzhen with levels of aluminum above national standards, apparently because of the excessive use of baking powder containing the metal. Eighteen outbreaks of food-related poisoning were reported between 1998 and 2007 from the use of the steroid clenbuterol, known as "lean meat powder" in pork production.
Hunan's output of unhusked rice totaled 25 million tons in 2011, or 12.8 percent of the country's total, according to data by the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Guangzhou Food and Drug Administration said in a May 16 report on its website that 44 percent of rice tested in selected samples had excessive levels of cadmium. Most of the rice that that failed to meet the standard was from two counties of Hunan, the official Xinhua News Agency reported today, without citing anyone.