Is that rat in your lamb, or are you just happy to see me?

I like to think that my food contains the stuff that is advertised on the label or placard – whether it’s beef, lamb, a specific variety of tomato or pet food. Substituting for cheaper inputs or adding supplemental ingredients isn’t new or on the rise (see Swindled); technology advances just allow regulators and buyers to better identify fraud incidents. As long as there have been vendor specs, there has been food fraud.

Melamine in dog food, horse meat in beef lasagne or seagull meat mixed with other protein sources have all garnered attention and research. Food producers and manufacturers in China, a huge and still growing food export market, have been fingered in multiple fraud cases – and rat meat passed off as lamb is the latest.13rat600a

According to New York Times writer Christopher Buckley, the newest discovery of meat substitution has set off media furor-fed political response in China.

The police arrested 63 suspects accused of “buying fox, mink and rat and other meat products that had not undergone inspection,” which they doused in gelatin, red pigment, and nitrates, and sold as mutton in Shanghai and adjacent Jiangsu Province for about $1.6 million, according to the ministry’s statement. The account did not explain how exactly the traders acquired the rats and other creatures.

China’s prime minister since March, Li Keqiang, has said that improving food safety was a priority — one of the main grievances of ordinary citizens that he has said his government would tackle. But similar vows by his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, ran up against inadequate resources, buck-passing and muddle among rival agencies, and protectionism by local officials, said Mao Shoulong, a professor of public policy at Renmin University in Beijing, in an interview.

“The United States and Europe can’t eradicate these problems either, but they are even more complicated in China,” said Mr. Mao, who has studied food and pharmaceutical safety regulation. “Chinese food production has become larger scale and more technological, but the problems emerging also involve using more sophisticated technology to beat regulators and cheat consumers,” he said. “The government’s efforts need to catch up with the scale and complexity of the problems.”

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.