China is taking serious note of the scandal over clenbuterol-tainted pork, which has hit the industry hard since pork is the most consumed meat in the country.
Official media outlets have published hard-hitting stories on the scandal and the government is taking steps, aware of previous such instances that have raised serious questions about the safety and reliability of Chinese food and other products and hurt the country's image overseas.
The scandal came to light last month after China Central Television reported Jiyuan Shuanghui Food Co. Ltd., an affiliate of the giant meat processor Henan Shuanghui Investment and Development, had bought pigs that had allegedly been given feed laced with clenbuterol, which helps speed up muscle-building and growth of lean meat in pigs but can cause numerous health problems among humans consuming the product. The chemical, experts told the official Xinhua news agency, can even cause cancer and other diseases.
When the scandal broke, Shuanghui Group, the holding company, issued an apology to consumers and asked Jiyuan Shuanghui to stop production while the claims were investigated.
Earlier, 14 people, including seven pig farm managers, six brokers and one purchaser from Jiyuan Shuanghui, had reportedly been detained by police and at least six officials and workers at local animal quarantine stations in Henan province were fired or suspended.
In its latest report this week, Xinhua said the detection of the toxic additive clenbuterol in pig feed, however, "has once again undermined Chinese consumers' confidence in the country's food producers."
The report reminded that in 2008, melamine-tainted milk powder killed at least six infants and sickened 300,000 babies across China. The incident deeply eroded consumers' faith in the integrity of China's dairy industry. In a similar lengthy piece last month, China Daily also warned consumer confidence had been rattled by the tainted pork scandal.
In its latest moves, the Chinese agriculture ministry, seeking to restore consumer confidence, says it will cooperate with eight ministries and commissions to launch a year-long crackdown on illegal additives in pig feed, Xinhua reported.
In major cities, contaminated products of food companies suspected of involvement in the scandal have been moved off supermarket shelves.
Some of the provinces have told their slaughterhouses to conduct daily checks to avoid any unsafe meat reaching the public.
Wan Long, the CEO of Shuanghui Group, headquartered in Henan, was quoted as admitting the company's mistake and disclosed the scandal had so far cost the company more than $1.85 billion.
All such measures and many more may be needed considering the size of the pork market in the country.
Agriculture ministry figures said more than 600 million pigs are consumed in the country annually. The China Animal Agriculture Association says in 2009, pork accounted for 65 percent of the meat consumed by Chinese.
One farmer raising pigs told Xinhua clenbuterol is inexpensive but its use can reduce a pig's fat by 10 percent. He said lean pork fetches 1.6 yuan, or nearly 25 cents, a kilogram more than fat cuts.
Liang Haoyi, a researcher at the China Animal Agriculture Association, earlier told China Daily that supervision of live pigs currently relies mainly on spot checks with plenty of loopholes.
"For instance, almost no strict supervision is targeted at pig purchasers and some of them have actually encouraged farmers to feed pigs with illegal additives to earn more money," he said.
"The scandal will hit the meat industry hard," Qiao Yufeng, vice chairman of China Animal Agriculture Association, told Xinhua.
Professor Zheng Fengtian, an agriculture economist at the Renmin University of China, said he believes the widespread use of clenbuterol is just one of many problems with the country's meat industry.
"Antibiotics are fed to pigs to stop them from getting sick, while growth hormones are added to quicken their growth," he said.
Other experts warned the new government crackdown encourage departments to shift their responsibilities so they can escape blame when something goes wrong.
"Disqualified products have no market. This will force producers to behave," Zheng said while urging tighter supervision.