Sunday, July 15, 2007
BEIJING — While visiting relatives a year ago, Du Haipeng, 5, came down with a sore throat. Doctors prescribed a Chinese antibiotic, Xinfu. The boy’s reaction to the drug was so violent, he had to be taken to a nearby hospital.
“I remember clearly that I was shearing sheep when I got a call from my sister and her husband,” said Du Xinglong, 36, Haipeng’s father. “When I rushed to the hospital my son had already fallen into a coma.”
A week later, regulators banned Xinfu. Authorities eventually determined that the State Food and Drug Administration had granted the drug’s maker a seal of approval, even though Xinfu was not properly produced or sterilized.
The scandal was just one symptom of an ailing regulatory regime. Last year, the government uncovered 167,000 examples of illegal production and trade in medicine and medical equipment. In some cases, illegal factories are fined or closed; but their owners rarely face prosecution, and the problem persists.
Because of the public furor Xinfu set off, its producer, the Anhui Huayuan Worldbest Biology Company, was an exception. Several senior executives at the company were dismissed; its production license was revoked; and last November, according to state-run media, the company’s general manager committed suicide.
That was too late for a 6-year-old named Liu Sichen. She had been given Xinfu for a tonsil infection. Soon she fell into a coma, and after several days she died.
“She was about to go to elementary school,” said Sichen’s mother, Guo Ping. “Her father bought her a new pink backpack.”
In the end, at least 14 people died after taking Xinfu, and perhaps hundreds more were severely sickened. Du Haipeng woke from his coma after 22 days of emergency treatment. But he wasn’t himself. “He didn’t recognize us,” said his mother, Fu Liguang, 38. “Over the next two and a half months, he didn’t say a single word.”
Today, the boy rarely speaks. He wets his pants, and his doctors say he may have permanent brain damage.
His father has no sympathy for Zheng Xiaoyu, the State Food and Drug Administration’s former chief, executed on Tuesday.
“If he hadn’t approved that company our family wouldn’t be shattered,” Mr. Du said. “He should have been killed a long time ago.”
Rujun Shen contributed reporting.
The report, aired late Wednesday on China Central Television, highlights the country's problems with food safety despite government efforts to improve the situation.
Countless small, often illegally run operations exist across China and make money cutting corners by using inexpensive ingredients or unsavory substitutes. They are almost impossible to regulate.
State TV's undercover investigation features the shirtless, shorts-clad maker of the buns, called baozi, explaining the contents of the product sold in Beijing's sprawling Chaoyang district.
Baozi are a common snack in China, with an outer skin made from wheat or rice flour and a filling of sliced pork. Cooked by steaming in immense bamboo baskets, they are similar to but usually much bigger than the dumplings found on dim sum menus familiar to many Americans.
The hidden camera follows the man, whose face is not shown, into a ramshackle building where steamers are filled with the fluffy white buns, traditionally stuffed with minced pork.
The surroundings are filthy, with water puddles and piles of old furniture and cardboard on the ground.
"What's in the recipe?" the reporter asks. "Six to four," the man says.
"You mean 60 percent cardboard? What is the other 40 percent?" asks the reporter. "Fatty meat," the man replies.
The bun maker and his assistants then give a demonstration on how the product is made.
Squares of cardboard picked from the ground are first soaked to a pulp in a plastic basin of caustic soda -- a chemical base commonly used in manufacturing paper and soap -- then chopped into tiny morsels with a cleaver. Fatty pork and powdered seasoning are stirred in.
Soon, steaming servings of the buns appear on the screen. The reporter takes a bite.
"This baozi filling is kind of tough. Not much taste," he says. "Can other people taste the difference?"
"Most people can't. It fools the average person," the maker says. "I don't eat them myself."
The police eventually showed up and shut down the operation.