Rice contaminated with high levels of the toxic heavy metal cadmium, dubbed “cadmium rice,” is the latest food scandal in China to trigger public panic and anger among the country's consumers.
The Guangzhou Food and Drug Administration revealed[zh] on May 16 that eight out of 18 rice samples tested in local markets contained excessive levels of cadmium. Most of the polluted rice comes from the southern province of Hunan, China’s top rice producing province.
“Cadmium in rice usually comes from the soil where it grows, and the soil was polluted by mining and chemical wastes,” Fan Zhihong, a food safety expert at China Agricultural University in Beijing, told the state-run Global Times.
The rice joins a growing list of food scares to hit China in recent years. Earlier this month, it was revealed that rat and fox meat was sold as lamb in the Shanghai and Jiangsu.
Contaminated rice has been a problem in China for decades. According to Global Times, a Nanjing Agricultural University research project in 2011 found that around 10 percent of rice sold across the nation contained excessive amounts of cadmium. According to another report, up to 70% of China’s soil is contaminated with heavy metals and fertilizers.
But officials are usually not forthcoming with information about such pollution. Earlier this year, environmental authorities refused a Beijing lawyer's request to publish the soil pollution data in China, saying it’s a “state secret”.
An insider was quoted by communist party newspaper People’s Daily as saying:
The food that contains cadmium is “chronically poisoned” food, which under normal circumstances will not lead to major food safety incidents. Under the pressure of economic development, some related departments turned a blind eye to food enterprises that broke the rules. They are unlikely to be punished by the law and they can still keep their posts.
In response to the news, the Chinese government's official mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency ran a piece, titled [zh] “Experts Recommend People Should Not Eat Rice from One Region All the Time,” that suggested people should diversify their rice sources to lower the risk.
The advice sparked lots of criticism online. On popular Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo, one netizen “Bolin” wrote [zh] sarcastically:
People's Daily tells us that it is legal to sell toxic food. By eating all types of toxic food, we won't die from one kind of toxic food.
Shanghai-based writer “Lei Wenke” echoed [zh]:
Does it mean [we should] maintain a balance of different types of pollution?
Environmentalist Dong Liangjie posed [zh] a rhetorical question:
Not only cadmium rice, but lead rice and arsenic rice are also in the market; some have two or three excessive chemicals at the same time. [The polluted rice is] not only from Hunan, but also from Hubei, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Guangdong, Henan, Hebei, and other provinces. It's not just tens of thousands of tons, but millions of tons. So much polluted rice from so many places, how do you take turns to eat it? Experts within the system don't track the source of the problem or talk about the truth; they use taxpayers’ money and try to shift people's attention. What's happened to professional ethics?
Online personality and social critic “Xue Manzi” suggested [zh] that labels should list the amount of heavy metals that the rice contains:
In view of the recent exposure of rice containing excessive levels of cadmium, rice pollution has become the focus of attention for the whole country. For food safety, I recommend that the packaging of rice and flour all have the amounts of heavy metals in them on the package. We really do not want to repeat the scene of importing foreign milk powder. We can carry the milk powder, but rice and flour are really too heavy to carry back [from abroad]. By printing this information on the package, we can feel safe to eat it. Anyone support my idea?
One user “Beiou jixu mengxiang zhilv” complained [zh]:
When air, water, and food are contaminated, we can not pick pollution-free food, but fight with contaminated food to see how much poison can be self-discharged from the Chinese people's body!
Caijing Commentator Ye Tan called on [zh] the Hunan government to be more transparent about the food safety issues. However, as it shows on the shared map of China's rice pollution, the problem is not only limited to Hunan, but found in China at large.:
The Hunan government should sincerely work to solve the problem by making the information public. Without transparent information and recognition of the heavy metal pollution in the soil, consumers can not distinguish poisonous rice from non-poisonous rice produced in Hunan. The simplest approach for them is to turn away from all the rice in Hunan. If information is made public, then Hunan rice can be divided into contaminated and safe rice. If the information is not made public, Hunan will face an overall credit crisis. The land, accounting for 13 percent of the country's rice fields, will become ruins.