BEIJING — It was a wedding the guests would never forget. Everybody of consequence in the village had been invited to a banquet to celebrate the marriage of the son of one of the wealthiest families. Fifty tables groaned under a lavish spread of dumplings, steamed chickens, pork ribs, meatballs, stir fries, all of it exceptionally delicious, guests would later recall.
But about an hour into the meal, something seemed to be wrong. A pregnant woman collapsed. Old men clutched their chests. Children vomited.
Out of about 500 people at the April 23 banquet in Wufeng, 286 went to the hospital. Doctors at the No. 3 Xiangya Hospital in nearby Changsha, capital of Hunan province, blamed pork contaminated with clenbuterol, a steroid that makes pigs grow faster and leaner. Consumed by humans in excess quantity, it can cause heart palpitations, nausea, convulsions, dizziness and vomiting.
To eat, drink and be merry in China is done at your own risk: Weddings increasingly end with trips to the emergency room.
Since 2008, when six children died and 300,000 were sickened by melamine-tainted baby formula, the Chinese government has enacted ever-more-strict policies to ensure food safety, including a directive last month from the Supreme Court calling for the death penalty in cases where people die as a result of tainted foods.
It hasn‘t helped. If anything, China’s food scandals are becoming increasingly frequent and bizarre.
In May, a Shanghai woman who had left uncooked pork on her kitchen table woke up in the middle of the night and noticed that the meat was emitting a blue light, like something out of a science fiction movie. Experts pointed to phosphorescent bacteria, blamed for another case of glow-in-the-dark pork last year.
Such incidents cut to the quick of the weaknesses in China‘s monolithic one-party system. Chinese authorities are painfully aware that people will lose confidence in a government that cannot give them assurances about what they eat. They are equally aware that tainted foods could cause what communist authorities fear most: social unrest.
The government’s efforts are looking frantic.
Propaganda posters put up in recent weeks in Beijing restaurants show a clenched fist about to smash into a man in a chef‘s toque with the message, “Crack down on illegal additives!”
It’s doubtful, however, that anybody will heed the regulation — China is famous for promulgating laws that are never enforced. There is no equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; myriad agencies reporting to various ministries, including the Agriculture Ministry and Health Ministry, tend to kick responsibility from one to another.
The incentive to cheat is greater than ever before, with inflation at its highest level in nearly three years. Food prices in May were up 11.7 percent from last year, and flooding this month is expected to push them even higher.
"In China, the reflexive desire to cover up and hide has trumped transparency and the need to protect public health,” said Phelim Kine, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.