Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Food Safety Memo: Maybe the Chinese Government Needs to Look to its Minority Muslim Population for Food Safety Advice and Expertise?

Employees remove milk products contaminated with melamine from the shelves of a supermarket in China's Hefei, Anhui province on September 16, 2008, after Chinese Government officials announced a nationwide recall. [Photo Credit: Reuters.]

The Chinese government may not need to look any farther than to the country's own minority Muslim population to help the world's largest nation solve its serious and chronic food safety problem.

China's most recent food safety problem, and a big one it is, involves powdered and fluid milk, along with numerous food products made with the milk, that's been tainted by the chemical melamine. The contaminated milk has thus far caused the deaths of four children and sickened over 50,000, according to official Chinese government reports. Most observers inside and outside China however believe as many as twice that number of Chinese children have been made ill by the adulterated milk.

Chinese candy made with the adulterated milk also has been found and pulled off the shelves of Asian grocery markets in the U.S. and in Europe. No confirmed cases of illness from the candy has been reported in the U.S. or Europe to date though.

Additionally, because powdered milk and products like candy and numerous others made with the contaminated milk were exported to countries throughout Asia, there have been numerous cases of children becoming ill in those countries because of the Chinese powdered milk and milk-based products.

High levels of melamine in milk -- and it appears the melamine was laced into the milk and related products on purpose -- cause kidney problems, particularly in small children. The reason experts expect the melamine was intentionally put in the Chinese milk is two fold: The percentage of the chemical in the milk appears too high to have been a mere accident, and adding melamine to milk increases it protein level.

The last point is important because the Chinese government requires a certain protein level in milk. Chinese government officials believe chemical company sales representatives in the country convinced farmers to add the melamine, allowing the farmers to make more money off the milk because the chemical artificially raises the protein level in the milk, allowing for higher profits. Melamine means less milk fat which means higher profits.

The majority of China's Muslim population lives in the country's Xinjiang province. There, as well as in other Muslim communities in China, as is the case with devout Muslims throughout the world, the community adheres to strict Muslim dietary laws known as halal, or "permissible" in Arabic. As a result, the provincial government and food industry serving the Muslim population in Xinjiang province follows the strict halal dietary laws for food preparation and safety. It's estimated 70% of the world's Muslims follow Islamic halal dietary laws.

Halal incorporates strict Muslim dietary laws - similar to kosher rules practiced by observant Jews - where meat is slaughtered according to traditional guidelines and pork is forbidden, among other ritual food preparation methods.

All food must be certified by a local Islamic Council. At meat plants, imams or nonclerics trained in ritual slaughter are present daily. Council members also periodically visit processing factories to ensure compliance with religious laws, while government inspectors are ultimately responsible for food safety.

According to a story written by San Francisco Chronicle foreign service correspondent Reese Erlich, who did the reporting in China's Xinjiang province, "In past months, hundreds of Xinjiang residents have been sickened and an infant has died from melamine-tainted milk products imported from other regions of China. But so far, provincial officials say, Xinjiang's domestic milk supply has remained safe in part because of halal oversight."

In the story published in the Chronicle last week, Erlich reports the province's governmental officials and food industry say they "are determined to keep it that way by combining strict government inspection with the moral authority of Islam."

Read Reese Erlich's report, "Islamic dietary laws help Chinese region's milk," here.

As is often the case, sometimes the solutions to a problem are right in a country or industries back yard.

Both the Islamic faith's halal and the Jewish faith's kosher laws for how food is to be prepared for sale offer important food safety guidelines that can be used in conjunction with scientific-based guidelines and in combination with governmental regulation and enforcement to ensure a safe food supply.

Of course, in the case of the Chinese milk contaminated with melamine, which appears to have been an intentional act, laws and strict enforcement of such laws must be present as well. And dairy farmers and other food producers must know that if caught intentionally adulterating the food supply they will be punished severely, which shouldn't be a problem in politically Communist governed China, even though its economic system is a form of mixed capitalism. But it is a problem.

China though has a far more serious and systemic food safety problem beyond the intentional adulterating of foods and beverages. It's sanitary systems are lax, quality control standards poor, and regulations out of date and in many cases non-existent.

This is where learning from its minority Muslim community makes sense on a practical basis. Adopting aspects of the halal system would improve China's food safety standards 100%. And combining some of these time honored processes, which work, also would be politically smart, as China needs to better integrate its Muslim minority into the nation's mainstream.

Doing so also would help create increased confidence throughout Asia and the rest of the world vis-a-vis China's food exports. Right now that confidence among China's key trading partners -- Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Europe and the U.S., among others -- is at an all time low.

China is the world's most populated country and the fastest-growing economically. Its goal is to become a 21rst century developed country as fast as possible. In order to do so though China can't have a 19th century food safety system, which it does.

The country needs to rapidly upgrade it food safety system. Borrowing some of the time-tested halal techniques from the nation's Muslim community, along with modernizing China's food regulatory, inspection and enforcement policies and procedures, could be a way for the country to improve its food safety system in the most rapid and at least initially comprehensive way.

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