Tracing the Source of Tainted Pork

By Zheng Chu
Published: 2009-04-15

News, issue no.414, April 13, 2009
Translated by Zhang Junting
Original article:

Henan province has been embroiled in a food safety scandal after consumption of pork sourced there caused 70 people in Guangzhou to fall ill.

Authorities from Mengjin county cited clenobuterol hydrochloride, a drug used by farmers to make pigs leaner and look healthier, as the source for the illness.

The county government has said the drugged pigs came from Mengjin county and that the shipment had first been tested at the county's inspection center by a staff member surnamed Guo, who had concluded the pigs were safe for consumption. 

Local regulators have since revoked Guo's license as an animal inspector, fined him 300 yuan, and transferred him to another unit.

They have also ramped up the screening of pigs for the drug at the farm level.

According to a Mengjin pig farmer surnamed Li, use of the drug was an open "secret" in the industry and most Mengjin farms that sold pigs to other provinces used it.

"As long as there are farmers doing it, those who don't will suffer losses," said Li.

A risky drug
According to Li, farmers would begin use of the drug when pig health began declining, usually one month before sale, when they weighed 65kg.

Though pork prices fluctuated sharply, it was more lucrative to sell such pigs to markets in other provinces than in Mengjin. A pig sold elsewhere was worth more than 100 yuan than if sold locally.

But the drug also posed risks to the pigs. Dosages were hard to control, and if pigs were over-stimulated or surprised - such as when they changed hands in transactions - they often died suddenly. Pig farmers often joked that if a firecracker were to be thrown in a sty, pigs would foam at the mouth and drop dead.

Occasionally, pigs given high doses of the drug would die mid-sale. According to an unwritten rule between pig dealers and farmers - if a pig dies inside the farm's gate, the farmer assumes the loss; outside of it, the dealer does.

Thus, pigs were usually sedated with other rugs before being transported to minimize this risk.

Inspections were the major line of defense against the flow of tainted pork into the market. Pigs were tested twice before being sent to the slaughterhouse, and again after they arrived at the market.

Before the breakout of the illness, Mengjin tested 2% of pigs before they were transported, and the Guangzhou Tianhe market tested 20%.

The phone number for the inspector surnamed Guo was posted by the gate of the Mengjin's livestock department office, where hog dealers could contact him for inspections.

When the EO spoke with Guo on the phone, he said he did his job "by the book", but added that he had long known of the industry abuse of clenobuterol hydrochloride.

Posing as a pig farmer, the EO journalist visited nine pig fodder supply shops in Mengjin, where every shop owner confirmed they had sold the drug before, but also that they had stopped because the government had begun closely monitoring it. They suggested that one could only find it if they looked outside the county.

Big business in pigs
Pig farming has become the primary agricultural income for Mengjin county. The production value of livestock in Mengjin accounted for 50% of all agricultural output, and pig farming industry stood at 50% of the total livestock output.

And the Luoyang city government, which Mengin falls in, planned on building key pig farming centers in Yinshi, Yichuan, Ruyang, Yiyang and Mengjin, with a goal of 3 million total pigs making up 75% of all those in Luoyang city.

As pig farming became more and more standardized, individual farmers were gradually eliminated. Farmers keeping two or three pigs generally left the trade, and now most local farmers have kept more than 30.

The tainted pork scandal has had tremendous influence on the local pork market - several meat vendors in a Mengjin meat market said sales were plummeting, and that vendors who once sold two to three pigs a day could recently only sell half a pig. Resturant owners told the EO that customers were worried about pork safety and that they were being extremely cautious.

One pig dealer told the EO that regardless of whether its a pig or butchered pork, those in his trade can tell instantly whether or not the drug was fed to the pig. In tainted pork, he said there would be half an inch of fat between the skin and the meat, and that it would sometimes ooze a yellow liquid if not thoroughly cleaned.

"There is no such tainted pork in the Mengjin market," said the dealer, adding that Mengin pig traders had another rule with the tainted pork - not to sell it to locals.