Plasticize it (and criticize it)

PhotobucketEarlier this year, I asked the question “Will baijiu kill you?” Looking at the issues of product safety, toxicity and consumption patterns, I reached the counterintuitive conclusion that baijiu was not bad for you; at least no worse than any distilled alcohol. And so I have followed a recent quality control scandal with a heavy heart.

On November 19, the website of Chinese publication 21st Century Business Herald revealed that independent tests on Hunan’s famous mixed-aroma baijiu Jiugui Jiu[1] 酒鬼酒 contained high levels of dibutyl phthalate, a type of plasticizer. In late November China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIC)[2] launched an investigation into the use of plasticizers in Chinese baijiu production.

Before revealing what plasticizer does, it is plain that humans shouldn’t consume anything with plastic in its name. Plasticizers are chemical compounds used to soften plastics for industrial purposes. As they were clearly never intended to be ingested, the information on toxicity is limited, but the Chinese media has tossed around terms like “cancer causing,” “much more serious than melamine,” and indicated it can “damage the digestive and immune systems” and cause “testicular or kidney damage and fertility problems.” Not good.

The response from the industry and the government followed the predictable pattern: obscure, obfuscate and deny.[3]

The Hunan government launched a probe into plasticizer in Jiugui Jiu. On November 21, just two days after the original story broke, the government announced that while they had found “excessive” levels of plasticizer in the baijiu, “there is no evidence that the plasticizer was intentionally added.”

The China Alcoholic Drinks Association (CADA) responded by saying, “it is irresponsible to claim that the plasticizer found in Jiugui brands exceeded standards because there are currently no such standards on the Chinese mainland.” It added, “Domestic levels of plasticizers in liquor products were below overseas standards.”

An unnamed official from the Ministry of Health echoed this sentiment, telling Xinhua that no country has set standards for the plasticizer levels in spirits and telling Global Times that the time for standards is now.

It’s hard not to find these responses disingenuous in the extreme. What they assume is that readers will be too lazy or confused to confirm their statements. I’m no international legal expert, but I would guess that, while it may be true that most countries don’t monitor plasticizer in consumables, I would assume that the absence of a regulation would be a poor defense for poisoning consumers.

But this line of reasoning is flawed at a more basic level: China does have guidelines for plasticizer levels. Yes, when the story first broke, Xinhua reported:

The level was 260 percent higher than the allowed maximum level of 0.3 mg per kg in food as outlined in a document issued by MOH last June . . .

As any good defense attorney will tell you, it’s important to get your stories straight, but the MOH and CADA seem to have missed that day of Cover Ups 101.

What their evasions plainly dance around is the fact that just last year the Mainland government suspended several imported food and beverage products from Taiwan. The reason: suspected use of plasticizers. Xinhua News’ English-language site devoted an entire “See! The Mainland isn’t the only place with food scandals!” page to commemorate the occasion. The Taiwan scandal was what prompted the .3 mg per kg plasticizer standard. So to say that no one could have seen this one coming is either a lie or high-order incompetence, possibly both.

Unbelievably, it gets worse. In a rare candid Xinhua op-ed, writer Cao Kai points out that, “according to its own statement,” CADA has known about the plasticizer issue in baijiu for 17 months:

The association said it issued an internal notice last December, calling for its member companies not to use plastics in the production, storage and sales of the liquor after problems emerged in June 2011. But it never gave warnings to consumers.

Yet this is direr than Cao may realize. If CADA knew about it 17 months before November 2012, this means it was aware of the issue before the Taiwan scandal broke in June 2011. If so, it means that CADA identified the problem, watched it explode in someone else’s face, and still failed to take action. Why would it do this? More to the point, why would a baijiu company allow toxins into its production cycle? There are a couple of possibilities.

Most English-language reports indicate that the plasticizer found its way into the baijiu inadvertently through the production process ­– it rubbed off from plastic tubes or other plastic materials through which the baijiu passed. This explanation makes the incident a regrettable yet unintentional consequence of faulty equipment. It absolves the baijiu makers of any sinister motives and shifts the blame to the plastics manufacturers. This account might make sense if plasticizer contamination was widespread throughout China’s beverages, but it seems limited to baijiu. Alternatively, it might also make sense if the scandal was limited to one or two baijiu manufacturers using a bad plastics supplier, but the scandal has ballooned to include several producers in distant provinces. Moreover, the bad plastic excuse doesn’t explain why CADA was unwilling to implement a presumably inexpensive fix in a highly profitable industry, or why the government is trying to bury the scandal.

For that we must look flavoring essences. Only one of the dozen or so English-language articles I’ve read on the subject even hinted at this possibility that flavor additives could be responsible for plasticizer contamination, but the Chinese-language news has been more forthcoming. In one report, Dong Jinshi of China’s International Food Packaging Association says the use of flavoring agents containing plasticizer is widespread throughout the industry. “It’s my understanding that in the markets in Shenyang, you can buy Wuliangye flavoring, Moutai flavoring; or any other alcohol’s flavoring essence,” he says. While these essences are probably intended for use by counterfeiters or low-end distillers hoping to imitate high-end brands, the report suggests that many major manufacturers also add essences to improve the aroma of their products. Such essences are most often found in “aged” baijius; those baijius purporting to be ten- or twenty-years old are often only mid-range baijiu with flavoring added to it. The lack of any industry standards regarding aging and the disclosure of ingredients allows them to brazenly misrepresent their products.[4]

What you have, in essence (if you’ll excuse the pun), is baijiu companies taking a perfectly safe, non-toxic product and adding toxins to it in order to swindle consumers out of their money. It is possible that, as they claimed, the individual producers did not realize the flavoring they used contained plasticizer, but lack of scrutiny is no excuse when producing foods and beverages. To do so, however, would have the unfortunate consequence of exposing that these baijiu companies are deliberately misrepresenting what’s in their products to consumers. It’s bad any way you look at it – no wonder they’re trying to confuse the issue.

We haven’t heard the last of plasticizer and baijiu, either. This story is a black hole that sucks in more and more of the industry the longer it stays open.

The week after the Jiugui Jiu story broke, an anonymous netizen calling himself Shuijing Huang[5] claimed that he bought a bottle of Moutai in Hong Kong and had it privately analyzed in a laboratory. He claimed finding dangerous levels of diethylhexyl phthalate, another plasticizer, and demanded more widespread tests from the government. He did not verify the results with a third party or reveal the identity of the lab that conducted the initial tests.

Kweichow Moutai’s chairman of the board, Yuan Ruanguo called the accusations a smear job. “Someone is taking advantage of the public concern over food safety to ignite panic among consumers,” he said.

He may have been correct – the vague Shuijing Huang accusation certainly has the whiff of a hoax about it – but from a PR standpoint Moutai completely shit the bed in their response. First they released the results of analyses by three independent quality control organizations showing that their plasticizer levels were well under the national standards. By doing this they not only lent their anonymous accuser legitimacy, but also repeatedly reinforced the subconscious connection in consumers’ minds between the words “Moutai” and “plasticizer.” If they had stopped there, it might not have been so bad, but then they kicked the publicity vehicle into overdrive and it backfired spectacularly. As Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report writes:

Possibly encouraged by the positive response to its [initial] statement, the company held a press conference on Wednesday where Li Tongji, a professor from Peking University’s School of Public Health, dismissed concerns over chemicals like plasticizers and melamine (an industrial chemical at the heart of a deadly poisoned milk scandal in 2008), assuring wary consumers that “human beings have the ability to detox.”

In other words, “Moutai’s products are perfectly safe. Now shut up and drink your poison.” Well done, Moutai. Well done.

Then last Friday, December 14, an investment consultancy called Zhongnengxingye published the results of their own tests on plasticizer levels in a number of China’s leading baijiu brands, conducted by an affiliate of the Beijing Academy of Science and Technology. While Moutai was not singled out as a dangerous brand, both Wuliangye and Yanghe were found to have at least twenty times as much plasticizer as the current standards allow. Wuliangye was quick to denounce the report, claiming that plastics are not used in the production process, nor are any plasticizer flavorings added.

The timing of this scandal couldn’t be worse for the baijiu industry. Just a couple of months before the Spring Festival – the peak season for baijiu sales and consumption – this has the potential to significantly impact the coming year’s returns.

Recognizing that the scandal was spiraling out of control, and that local governments, who run most of the aforementioned baijiu concerns, would likely be implicated, the central government has decided to take action. And by action, of course, I mean stifling the conversation. According to China Digital Times, the Ministry of Propaganda allegedly issued the following directive to state media on Tuesday:

Central Propaganda Department: With regards to negative news on the baijiu industry, all media are to discontinue production of all reports and commentary except for that which strictly adheres to Xinhua wire copy and information issued by authoritative bureaus, and which also downplays the issue. (December 18, 2012)

More baijius will likely be tainted by the plasticizer scandal before it plays itself out. However unfortunate the circumstances, and inept the response, it is not an unqualified negative. As with other food safety incidents in China this has the potential to lead to positive change for consumers. The Chinese public is running out of patience for this sort of thing, and eventually (hopefully sooner rather than later) we should see tougher quality standards at the national and industry levels. Failure to do so would only further erode already tenuous consumer confidence.

Have I changed my opinion on whether baijiu will kill you? Not really. Baijiu itself is basically harmless, and this scandal all but ensures that harmful additives will be phased out of mainstream production.

So my advice to baijiu drinkers is more or less the same as before. If you are going to buy expensive baijiu, buy it duty free – it’s almost certainly the genuine article, and international laws are less amenable to poison. But if you want to buy baijiu in China, you are safer in the mid- and low-end range unless you have a retailer you can trust. And now I can add to that warning: don’t buy “aged” baijiu.

[1] Jiugui Jiu is a famous baijiu throughout China. Despite its name, which roughly translates “Drunkard’s Quaff,” it is considered one of the better brands at the mid-to-high range.

[2] Incidentally, “aqsic” is also the sound one makes when spitting out toxic foods and beverages.

[3] Ten points if you can name the reference without Google.

[4] In the past I have been skeptical of what value, if any, aging baijiu would have. These concerns now appear well founded.

[5] A regrettable pun on the Chengdu baijiu Shuijingfang.

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1 Response to Plasticize it (and criticize it)

  1. Mike Hu says:

    I want the 10 points. I reckon it’s something to do with Chris pattern, the last governor of Hong Kong.

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