From rat meat masquerading as lamb to tainted milk to exploding watermelons, Chinese consumers have become inured to stomach-churning food scandals. But on Tuesday, countless people were forced to ponder the benefits of vegetarianism after news reports emerged that unscrupulous meat traders had been peddling tons of beef, pork and chicken wings that in some cases had been frozen for 40 years.
The Chinese news media announced that the authorities had seized nearly half a billion dollars' worth of smuggled frozen meat this month across China, some of it dating to the 1970s. The caches of beef, pork and chicken wings, worth up to 3 billion renminbi, or $483 million, were discovered in a nationwide crackdown that spanned 14 provinces and regions, the state news agency Xinhua reported.
Typically, the meat was shipped from abroad to Hong Kong and then brought to Vietnam, where traders would smuggle the product across the Chinese border without declaring it to customs officials or going through required inspection and quarantine procedures. From there, criminals would often transport the meat in unrefrigerated trucks to save costs and refreeze it several times before it reached customers.
"It was too smelly. A truck full of it. I almost threw up when the door opened," Zhang Tao, a customs administration official in Changsha, the capital of central Hunan Province, was quoted as saying by Xinhua. The authorities in Changsha seized 800 tons of frozen meat on June 1 and arrested 20 suspected members of two gangs.
According to the Changsha Administration of Customs, one-third of the meat on sale at the largest wholesale market in the city was found to be illegally imported. While the origin of the smuggled meat was unclear, a report on the official Hunan propaganda department website said that the contraband had come from the border with Vietnam.
In the region of Guangxi, which borders Vietnam, customs officials found that some of the smuggled frozen meat "was more than 40 years old," according to The China Daily newspaper. Chinese officials did not explain where the meat originated or how it had been stored for almost two generations. After being refrozen, the meat was sold to retailers, supermarkets and restaurants across the country. China Central Television, the state broadcaster, showed workers in the southern city of Shenzhen repackaging the imported meat with Chinese labels, even though imported products, if legal, tend to be more profitable.
Some of the meat was sold on the Internet. Many meat retailers have set up profiles on Taobao, the online shopping website owned by Alibaba, offering local and imported meat. Some claim to be selling beef imported from the United States, even though such beef has been barred from the Chinese mainland since 2003, after outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.
Food scandals are a politically sensitive issue in China, where tainted food has sickened huge numbers of people. In 2008, milk powder tainted with melamine, a toxic industrial compound, made 300,000 babies ill and six died. Since then, the country has encountered watermelons that exploded from the misuse of a growth accelerator chemical, pork soaked in a detergent additive, steamed buns tainted with pesticides, and 15,000 dead pigs drifting down the Huangpu River in Shanghai.
But the news of 40-year-old frozen meat being sold to consumers has left even the most seasoned experts in shock. Bob Delmore, an expert on meat science at Colorado State University, said that although it was possible for meat to last that long frozen, it would be covered by "a tremendous amount of freezer burn" as the product lost moisture and the flesh degraded. But once it began to thaw, a consumer would immediately know something was wrong. "The dead giveaway would be the odor and the taste," he said.
In China, people turned to social media to complain about the latest scandal, with some considering vegetarianism, or at least a good wine vintage to make the risk go down easier. "A bottle of 1982 Lafite plus a piece of 70s steak and a pair of 80s chicken wings," wrote one user on the Sina Weibo microblog. "Bon appétit!"