Trust the Chinese to find a way to profit from everything. Earlier, it was the producers of adulterated food who profited from their defective products. But given the canny business sense of the Chinese, consumers have now found a way of making money from such food.
A court recently refused to grant the full amount of compensation claimed by a consumer who had purchased biscuits that turned out to be defective. He had ordered 30 boxes online at first. But, on finding them stale, he went on to order 200 more boxes over the next two months. He then went to court asking for a refund as well as damages. The court, however, rejected the claim. The consumer deserved to be compensated, the court said, but only for the first purchase of 30 boxes.
The judgment shows how far China has come from the time when the first major food scandal took place. Although unsafe food has been a long-standing problem, the 2008 adulterated baby milk powder scandal sent the country into panic. One of the cheapest and most popular baby milk powder companies, Sanlu, was found to be selling milk powder laced with melamine to increase its nitrogen content. Suddenly, infants were landing up in hospitals with kidney stones; six babies died and 54,000 were hospitalised.
What made the scandal more shocking was that the company had bribed not only farmers who supplied milk but also consumers who complained. Of course, the food monitoring authorities were involved too — Sanlu, in which New Zealand’s Fonterra had a 43% stake, had won awards and was the official supplier to China’s astronauts.
The Beijing Olympics had just ended when the scandal broke; it was later found that 22 companies, including an Olympic sponsor, had sold melamine-laced milk. Communist Party officials were found to have been involved in covering up the scandal till the Olympics got over.
In hot oil
In 2011, the ‘gutter oil’ scandal sent everyone into shock once again when it came to light that discarded oil, literally flowing in gutters, as well as used oil from restaurants was being collected and processed in small factories to be sold as fresh oil. Across the country, police seized hundreds of tonnes of such oil. A journalist was even killed after he wrote a blog about one such factory. The revolting videos showing the filth from which this oil was produced made everyone rethink their eating habits: from expats who prided themselves on locating small regional restaurants to overworked working class singles for whom cheap eateries were most convenient.
Harsh punishments, including life imprisonment, were handed out to the guilty in both these cases; two people were even executed. That, however, did not do much to reassure citizens. Some well-off families started thinking of migrating to the West, fearing that even money could not buy them safe food or clean air (those were also the days when Beijing was notorious for its smog).
Despite the damage caused by both these scandals to its own citizens, its domestic companies (Sanlu went bankrupt; other milk companies saw a 40% drop in sales) and its international reputation, China did not enact a tough law on food safety till 2015. While no scandal of this scale has recurred, food adulteration has not disappeared. Two years after the new law was passed, reporters unearthed a factory manufacturing oil from pig carcasses. Courts deal with approximately 4,500 cases every year regarding food adulteration.
Now, citizens have found a way to turn the tables on manufacturers. The new law stipulates that a consumer can claim 10 times the price of the product if it turns out defective. That provision has now been turned into a profitable venture.