Turning up their noses at Chinese seafood
Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 21, 2008
THE WORLD IS WELL AWARE that the Chinese are choking on the polluted fumes they spew daily into the atmosphere, and that the noxious gases they export with their manufactured goods are causing serious health problems, particularly for their neighbors.
Now, reader S.B. sends along this article from the International Herald Tribune, which explains the Chinese have developed a large fish farming industry that has created water pollution problems so severe as to prevent consumers in other countries from eating the exported fish.
The country has become a global fish farming colossus:
China produces about 70 percent of the farmed fish in the world, harvested at thousands of giant factory-style farms that extend along the entire eastern seaboard of the country. Farmers mass-produce seafood just offshore, but mostly on land, and in lakes, ponds, rivers and reservoirs, or in huge rectangular fish ponds dug into the earth.
What has this accomplished?
The government hoped the building boom would lift millions out of poverty. And it did. There are now more than 4.5 million fish farmers in China, according to the Fishery Bureau.
They have gotten gloriously rich in the process:
The boom did more than create jobs. It made China the only country that produces more seafood from fish farms than from the sea. It also helped feed an increasingly prosperous population, a longstanding challenge in China.
Many growers here struck it rich as well, people like Lin Sunbao, whose 25-year-old son is now studying at Cambridge University in England. “My best years were 1992, ’93, ’94,” Lin said. “I only had one aquafarm, and I earned over $500,000 a year.”
That success has come at a heavy price, however:
But that growth is threatened by the two most glaring environmental weaknesses in China: acute water shortages and water supplies contaminated by sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff that includes pesticides. The fish farms, in turn, are discharging wastewater that further pollutes the water supply.
“Our waters here are filthy,” said Ye Chao, an eel and shrimp farmer who has 20 giant ponds in western Fuqing. “There are simply too many aquaculture farms in this area. They’re all discharging water here, fouling up other farms.”
The problems are just as enormous as the industry itself:
More than half of the rivers in China are too polluted to serve as a source of drinking water. The biggest lakes in the country regularly succumb to harmful algal blooms. Seafood producers are part of the problem, environmental experts say. Enormous aquaculture farms concentrate fish waste, pesticides and veterinary drugs in their ponds and discharge the contaminated water into rivers, streams and coastal areas, often with no treatment.
Now, no one wants to eat Chinese seafood:
Importers of Chinese seafood quickly caught on. In recent years, eel shipments to Europe, Japan and the United States have been turned back or destroyed because of residues of banned veterinary drugs. Eel shipments to Japan have dropped 50 percent through August of this year.
Do I need to tell you that some Chinese in the industry have found a way to be critical of Japanese behavior?
Some growers have lashed out at Japan, arguing that it keeps raising the drug residue standard simply to protect its own eel farms against competition.
Forgive the Chinese public; after years of government propaganda, they know not whereof they speak. Food safety—particularly for imported food products–is a matter of extreme public concern in Japan. According to an American source:
Japan has been developing the new regulations for more than three years…The new Japanese regulations are based on international standards established by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization to ensure food safety.
The same source notes that the American pork industry changed its behavior to protect its livelihood, and used the example of the Japanese ban on American beef as a cautionary tale.
Besides, Japanese domestic production of eel, beef, and pork is insufficient to satisfy domestic demand.
In fact, Japanese standards covered more than eel and pork, as this Xinhua report admits:
The new criteria involve 302 food products, 799 agricultural chemicals and 54,782 inspection criteria and is (sic) believed to be the world’s strictest by far.
Xinhua also notes that the standards have had the desired effect:
A ministry spokesperson has promised the ministry would follow Japan’s new criteria strictly so as to guide Chinese exporters. Since 2001, says the ministry, China has suffered 24 major trade and technical barriers hindering its exports of farm produce to Japan.
This is confirmed by Chinaview:
China has resumed exports of grilled eels to Japan after a four-month suspension triggered by reports saying banned drugs had been found in the products. Inspection and quarantine authorities in southern China’s Guangdong Province, the country’s leading eel exporter, said exports to Japan resumed in mid November…Chinese grilled eel products were taken off Japanese shelves in July amid concerns about the use of antibiotics and some banned substances, said Huang Weiming, Guangdong inspection and quarantine bureau vice director. He said Guangdong had not received a single order for grilled eel from Japanese importers over the past four months.
Some misunderstandings still remain, however:
Many Japanese love grilled eels from China. They make up about 80 percent of the market and are sold at prices 40 percent cheaper than similar Japanese products, Huang said.
Here’s how the first sentence should read: Many Japanese love the price of grilled eels from China.
Some Chinese are still blustering, as the IHT reports:
“Our market will expand in Russia and Southeast Asia, and the EU,” Wang said.
I wouldn’t count those eels before they’re hatched. Or at least before reading this from the Wall Street Journal:
The European Union said Friday that it will follow the lead of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which said it is stepping up scrutiny of Chinese farm-raised seafood.
EU authorities in Beijing are talking to Chinese authorities and conducting an investigation, said Philip Tod, an EU spokesman. They have already asked EU countries to increase their vigilance. “We will not hesitate to take action,” Mr. Tod said. “The same substances banned in the U.S. are also banned in Europe.”
Mr. Wang unfortunately has another view:
“In five or six years, as we transfer our export destinations, Japan will be begging us.”
I wouldn’t bet the fish farm on it.
Some observers think the Chinese will get it right eventually:
“Water is the biggest problem in China,” said Peter Leedham, the business manager at Sino Analytica, which advises companies in China on food safety issues. “But my feeling is China will deal with it, because it has to. It just won’t be a quick process.”
I wish I could be so optimistic.