Can China Tame The Chinese Poison Train?

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have done a magnificent job examining the complex nature of the Chinese Poison Train, but the Times finally cut to the chase and asked the million-dollar question: can China tame the Chinese Poison Train? The solution requires China to reform an ailing regulatory regime.

As many as 17 bureaucracies have overlapping responsibilities in just the food and drug sphere, and they jealously guard their power. The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine have all vied for monitoring roles.

The reason: They wanted to collect license fees and fines to supplement their measly budgets. No less significantly, inspectors and their bosses could collect bribes in exchange for favors.

“It came down to turf warfare between departments,” said Roger Skinner, a retired British regulator who advised the Chinese government on improving food safety on behalf of the World Health Organization. “If they can’t enforce, they will lose revenue.”

Realizing they had created a muddle of competing bureaucracies, top leaders in 2003 formed the State Food and Drug Administration, named after its American counterpart, that on paper had “super-ministerial authority” to coordinate all the others that monitored the politically sensitive food and drug sphere.

Americans had to wait over half a century after the publication of “The Jungle” before our own FDA gained the power to regulate pharmaceuticals. Unhindered by a robust democracy, China has the ability to quickly and radically overhaul its own agencies. The government is even taking the state-run media off its normally tight leash to promote reform.

The state-run media has been given unusual latitude to expose shoddy goods. One of the most popular shows on China Central Television, “Weekly Quality Report,” investigates accidents, poisonings and cheap fakes. Recent topics include defective motorcycle helmets, a faux rabies vaccine, faulty tires and toxic food additives.

If only that pot of sunshine came as an English podcast. At the end of the day, we’re confident that the Chinese will reform their bureaucracy for the sake of satisfying American companies. What do you think? Tell us in the comments.

Can China Reform Itself? [NYT]
(AP Photo/Color China Photo)


Edit Your Comment

  1. tadowguy says:

    Here’s the bottom line. We get quite a bit of food from a country that:

    a) still eats dogs
    b) uses “night soil” to fertilize rice paddies
    c) considers weird parts of odd animals to be “remedies” (bear spleen, or whatever the remedy of the week is).


    d) considers the United States its primary military and economic rival

    So why is this surprising?

  2. TechnoDestructo says:

    I’ll giggle like a schoolgirl if you can get news organizations to start using the term “Chinese Poison Train.”

  3. AcidReign says:

    &nbsp &nbsp Despite human-rights abuses, China is a nation of incredible resources, cheap labor, and a tremendous work ethic. They have the potential to produce vast quantities of food. There was NO WAY the government was going to sit idly by and let that economic boom go by the wayside.

  4. keenclce says:

    Seriously, that is a ignorant comment that you have made. Still eats dog? That is like a citizen from India saying we are savages for eating cows. And “weird and odd things” as herbal remedies? Umm…can you say it is tied to the culture? Does being in a first-world nation make your culture better than others? I think not. So don’t go throwing your opinions around as if they made intelligent arguments.

  5. rich815 says:


    You mean like pretty much 70% of the rest of the world….

  6. SkyeBlue says:

    So, all of a sudden our government is somehow just mysterioulsy suddenly aware that this is going on?

    The “Food Protectors” of this country are in the business of looking out for the corporations, NOT in protecting the American people.

  7. humphrmi says:

    @AcidReign: For the most part, I agree with you. However, there is a complex cultural aspect to this issue that will likely play out before the Chinese government makes real change: they see the purchase and delivery of goods as a purely contractual issue, and leave it to the buyers to negotiate appropriate quality control clauses in their purchase contracts. Aside from that, they expect their contracts to be honored. However, as more and more tainted products become exposed, without intervention from their government, importers will either wiggle out of their contracts, or simply buy them out and refuse to buy more Chinese goods because “cheap aint cheaper than the lawsuits”. Eventually, China (if it does not intervene) will institute sweeping changes to ensure quality or risk losing their market. That’s worst case, of course – one would hope that forward thinking Chinese government officials will not leave it to contract law to determine the quality of their goods.

  8. miborovsky says:

    There are millions of Chinese manufacturers and farmers producing high-quality goods and crops. But they don’t sell at the same price as those whose products are defective, dangerous or contaminated. You get what you pay for.

    This is an economic issue which has absolutely nothing to do with the government, Chinese or American. Higher-quality products are more expensive. “Stopping the Chinese poison train” is as simple as not buying dirt-cheap Chinese imports.

  9. memphis9 says:

    Skyblue, Humphrmi & Miborovsky – thanks for highlighting the real botton line. We can scapegoat the Chinese, but the real reason US exporters – an increasingly rare breed to start! – aren’t just as prone to – erm – “cut corners” in the interest of profit, is that China and many other countries don’t dither around with an emerging threat. They simply ban the import until the foreign producers get their act together. In the case of potential contageon, COLLECTIVELY get their act together. And once a ban is in place, they’re in no hurry to UN-ban, either.

    …Good for them. That we aren’t really self-sufficient enough to do likewise should be a wakeup call.

    10 or 20 years ago, RC2 Corp (Thomas the Tank merchandiser), Hill Products (Pet Food) and many others would have gone out of business, or at best on life support, in the wake of revelations of such widespread contaimination. Now we just shrug, and return to our regularly scheduled “Airport Sippie Cup of Doom: Crisis on the Tarmac”.

  10. JustAGuy2 says:


    “US exporters – an increasingly rare breed to start!”

    Except they’re not – US merchandise exports have grown nearly 7%/year since 2001.

  11. wildhobo says:

    I don’t understand what eating dog has to do with the Chinese Poison Train. Are they sending pets that ate their tainted dog food over here?

    Plenty of people have cute little rabbits or fish as pets and it is socially acceptable to eat those (and I understand people don’t normally have tuna as a pet). You shouldn’t be so close-minded, while growing up overseas in a military family two of my favorite foods were horse and dog.

  12. miburo says:

    Can someone please tell me wth does anything the first poster said have to do with this article?

  13. joeblevins says:

    Miburo – Our first poster is the kind of person that order fried chicken tenders at any non-burger place. He is afraid of anything that is mother didn’t feed him directly.

    Xenophobia rules!

  14. ElizabethD says:

    I was at a “job lot” type of discount/surplus store yesterday. Normally I buy some of their interesting and cheap foods (salad dressing, pasta, etc.). But this China scare prevented me from doing so.

    I was examining the label on a nice looking bag of salted cashews, but the only origin info I could find was “Distributed by So-and-So Co., Morristown, New Jersey.” What does that mean? Why don’t they have to tell where the cashews are FROM? Anyone know?

  15. catnapped says:

    @ElizabethD: Because if you knew where they came from you might not buy them!

  16. royal72 says:

    what did the canadian guy say to the mexican?

    “looks like the fat americans are bored again and they’re gonna get into it with china next.”

    “si amigo, but it should help us sell them more food.”

  17. nearsite says:


    Did you know that none of your four points has anything to do with whether or not China can ‘tame the Chinese Poison Train’.

    A. What’s wrong with eating dogs? I’m sure you’ve had hot dogs and chicken ‘nuggets’ before. Do you know what parts of animals and what types of chemicals are used to keep these gound up parts of god knows what together? Atleast with eating a dog, you know whether you’re eating a German Shepherd or Mutt.

    B. Read ‘Fast Food Nation’, chances are if you’ve ever visited any fast food restaurant in your life, you’ve eaten some form of feces.

    C. I’m sure pound for pound, chinese people are healthier than American’s and lighter too to boot.

    D. And?

  18. artki says:

    > At the end of the day, we’re confident that the Chinese will reform their bureaucracy …

    Given a sufficiently long enough defintion of “day”, sure. Perhaps when they change governments. In the meantime, given that they are completely corrupt, you’ll see nothing but lipservice given to the reform of food and consumer product safely. Yeah, yeah. There’ll be (govt. controlled) press coverage. There’ll be the occasional show trial. But so long as the money keeps flowing to the govt. to look the other way – they will!