A hairy crab food safety scandal sheds light on China's pollution problem

From ToxicLeaks

The hairy crab is considered as a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and is usually served in the fall, around the mid-autumn festival, when the price of the crabs soars. However, this year, the passion for the shellfish has been dampened by a food safety scandal. In October 2016, Hong Kong's food safety commission discovered abnormal amounts of cancer causing chemicals in hairy crabs imported from mainland China and decided to suspend all further hairy crab imports from Jiangsu province, the place in mainland China the crabs came from. A health scandal that reflects the issue of the pollution in China. While the situation of the main hairy crab aquaculture sites, like lake Tai, has improved greatly over the last years, the contaminated crabs are proof that pollution is still a massive issue for food safety in China.

The hairy crab aquaculture lakes have suffered massive pollution for decades[edit | edit source]

The best hairy crabs of mainland China come from the area around Suzhou and its numerous lakes. However, in the past decades they have endured extremely high levels of pollution. As China entered globalization, the nearby city of Shanghai plunged the whole area into a senseless race to industrial growth. Petrochemical, textile and smelting activities bloomed all around the Yangtzi delta. An industrialised agriculture also began to thrive, without any regard for the environment. In the 1990's, about 1 billion tons of wastewater, rubbish, fertilizer and pig manure were dumped into lake Tai every year. Of course, local party officials ignored the environmental problem and only focused on economic results. Whistle blowers, like Wu Lihong, that dared to criticize government inaction against the pollution were silenced. Mr. Wu was sentenced to three years of prison for campaigning to expose this pollution scandal.

An overdue cleanup because of pollution induced algae crisis[edit | edit source]

It took a huge ecological crisis to finally get local authorities to start protecting the lakes of the Yangtzi Delta. In 2007, the chemicals dumped into Tai lake by nearby factories created a thick layer of blue-green algae that covered the surface of the water. Indeed, because of its warm and shallow waters, pollutants can very easily trigger algae development in Tai lake. Local government had to cut off the water supply to 2 million people for 10 days ! Under these circumstances, party leader for Jiangsu province Li Yuanchao had no choice and called for strict environmental regulations to prevent further pollution into the lake water : “The measures [to protect the environment] must be strictly implemented, even if they cause a 15 per cent downturn in the province’s gross domestic product”, he said at the time. This was the starting point of an intense, if overdue, cleanup of lake Tai. Of course the companies in the area were inequally monitored by regulators. For example, Hu Enlai, the head of a distillery in the neighboring Anhui province, claims he was shut down because of his poor relations with party leaders and that factories that released much bigger volumes of wastewater were left alone ! However, despite the collusion and the deals, the area was eventually cleaned up and the industries were moved away from the lake area and relocated to industrial zones. Pig farming was also discouraged and water treatment plants were implemented. Gradually, the water quality improved again, according to Fang Yingjun, head of an environmental non-governmental organisation : “Every year we go to the same spot to check the water for algae, and every year it’s better. It really is much better. So much money has been spent.”

Factories still secretly pollute Tai lake[edit | edit source]

Tai lake was supposed to symbolise the Chinese government's fight against pollution and shift towards a greener economy. While the lake is beyond doubt cleaner than it was 10 years ago, the pollution hasn't been eradicated and still plagues the lakeside residents. According to the activist that was imprisoned in 2007, Wu Lihong, the pollution hasn't stopped at all but has become more sneaky : “you can’t really see the polluted water any more but companies are still good at disguise”. Underwater piped connected to factories stealthily pour their poison into the lake waters and a massive garbage landfill has been found on one of the lake's islands and threatens to contaminate its waters. So there is still some pollution happening around Tai Lake and it's still a health hazard for the residents. And the contamination of the hairy crab samples found in Hong Kong are a clear sign that pollution is a very real issue for food safety in China.

A food safety scandal that reflects the persisting ecological issues in China[edit | edit source]

So what do these contaminated hairy crabs say about the state of Tai lake ? The samples were found at Shing Lung Hong Co., a retailer from Hong Kong that imports its crabs from mainland China, in the Tai lake area. The tests found illegal amounts of dioxin and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, substances that can cause cancers, reproductive disorders and weakened immune systems. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the water quality of the lake is to blame, which would be bad news. But the other explanation is even worse in some ways and tells a frightening story about product traceability in China in this context of water and soil pollution. Indeed, there is a very good chance these hairy crabs only lived for a few days in the lake before they were shipped out to Hong Kong. Indeed, lakeside residents like the Wang family that have tended hairy crabs for generation attest that ruthless crab producers bring in the crabs from other locations and “bathe” them in the lake for a few days in order to sell them at the same price as the rare Tai lake crabs. And there is no knowing where these “wannabe Tai lake hairy crabs” were bred. No doubt the crabs from the samples originated from a place that hasn't benefited from the press coverage of Tai lake and that is still impacted by massive industrial pollution.

So this hairy crab contamination story highlights the persisting pollution issues that plague China. Even though some areas like Tai lake have been cleaned up and are are showcased by local authorities eager to prove their eco friendliness, the pollution issue is still a pervasive issue in China. Worse, localised cleanups are deliberately used by local officials as “greenwashing” while the issues are neglected in areas that attract less coverage. However, this superficial treatment of the problem won't be enough in the long run. Food safety scandals similar to the hairy crab contamination happen every year in China. The most notable ones were the 2008 melamine-tainted milk formula that killed 6 babies and intoxicated 53,000 and the 2010 toxic bean-sprouts that were seized by the Wuhan police. The Chinese government can't afford to let this streak continue because the Chinese expect the leaders in Beijing to guarantee their safety against private interests and ruthless local officials. If the government fails to do so, social unrest can only increase.