Beijing has, time and time again, made a big public deal of its efforts to clamp down on dangerous food and drugs. These efforts are reminiscent of cartoon characters trying to plug a cracking dam with a single finger. The water creates new holes until the dam collapses.
In mid-June, Li Dongsheng, vice minister for the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, put his finger in the crack. Parading confiscated products, he noted that "there are now some problems of food safety of Chinese products. However, they are not serious. We should not exaggerate those problems."
Studies put the number of people that die every year in China due to fake medicines at more than 250,000.
Just as Li was making his speech, mainland media was flooded with stories news about fake albumin, a blood protein, in widespread use in Chinese hospitals. The product was medically useless but was still sold to about 60 hospitals at profits of 300%.
Beijing's most visible effort to clamp down on dangerous drugs was the death sentence passed on Zheng Xiaoyu, formerly the country's chief pharmaceutical regulator. Zheng approved substandard drugs in exchange for cash, one of them being an antibiotic that killed at least six people.
China produces about 70% of the world's penicillin, 50% of its aspirin and 35% of its Tylenol. The majority of products are safe and reliable, particularly those exported to countries with strong checks and balances.
However, when it comes to the domestic market or nations with soft customs regimes, the hunger for profits means that shipments are often loaded with fakes – aspirins that do nothing for headaches; penicillin that doesn't stop infections. For example, of 32 drug stores investigated in Nanjing in May, 22 were selling counterfeit drugs or health foods.
China's penchant for high-profile scapegoats such as Zheng does little to stop the flood of poor quality medicines. What is needed is change from the grassroots up.
Corruption has to be curtailed and a social safety net that virtually forces Chinese people to opt for the cheapest options available has to be revamped. Last year, the government reportedly received 4.6 million inquiries, complaints and reports related to fake food or medicines. Just sorting through those requires time and money.
The payoff, however, would be stronger industries, a safer population and the trust of trade partners.
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