There are two major stories that have been grabbing headlines over the summer: the rising cost of everything, and a growing number of food safety concerns. As the school year begins, it seems these two issues have converged in a way that could have deadly effects.
In many parts of China school lunch prices are not actually set by the schools themselves, but by local gov’t mandates. This means that when the cost of pork, or other ingredients, increases for the school, the price to the students has to remain the same. Since actions to raise the price would not be welcomed (there have been mini-riots in schools that tried this, even when inflation was much lower), cafeterias are left with two options: one being to decrease the amount of food each student receives (or just the amount of meat, as pork prices have risen sharply over the last year); or two, seek lower quality ingredients and hope for the best.
At the hospital where I work there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of the food since I started here last fall (we are also resisting increasing the cost of the set meal for workers). My favorite dish, shizitou (狮子头), essentially a ball of steamed ground pork, has become increasingly disappointing. It now seems to be equal parts meat and flour, which leaves it with a gritty, pasty texture. Many of my co-workers have responded by bringing their own food from home. However, given the options, I’m glad the hospital has taken this route (although there are whispers of food safety problems even in the hospital’s dining room).
In many parts of China though, it seems that schools have opted to reduce the quality of their ingredients. It is scary to imagine the quality of ingredients in a meal that costs a student roughly $.50, and still allows a profit margin for the school. During the first week of classes alone, more than 185 students were hospitalized due to food poisoning.
While the government claims that inspections are being ramped up to limit food related scandals, I have relatively little faith in the inspectors or the schools to actually take the actions needed to prevent future problems (I say I am skeptical because at one of the university cafeterias where I worked in Guangxi rat poison was accidentally added to the food). More regulations and “inspections” do nothing to actually address the root of the problem: safe food is too expensive.
This is a worrying start, and a trend that I fear will become worse as the Chinese gov’t continues to struggle with rising food costs, and until inflation comes under control, China’s children are at risk.