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Meat fraud highlights food fears in China

HONG KONG — Even for China’s scandal-numbed diners, news that the lamb simmering in the pot may actually be rat took the country’s endless outrages about food hazards into a new realm of disgust.

In an announcement intended to show that the government is serious about improving food safety, the Ministry of Public Security said over the Internet on Thursday that police had caught traders in eastern China who bought rat, fox, and mink flesh and sold it as mutton. But that and other cases of meat smuggling, faking, and adulteration that were also featured in Chinese newspapers and websites Friday were unlikely to instill confidence in consumers already queasy over many reports about meat, fruit, and vegetables laden with disease, toxins, banned dyes, and preservatives.

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Sixty-three people were arrested and are 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.

“How many rats does it take to put together a sheep?” said one typically baffled and angry user of Sina Weibo,China’s Twitter-like microblog service that often acts as a forum for public venting. “Is it cheaper to raise rats than sheep? Or does it just not feel right unless you’re making fakes?”

The arrests were part of a nationwide operation since late January to “attack food safety crimes and defend the safety of the dining table,” the ministry said. Police arrested 904 people suspected of selling fake, diseased, toxic, or adulterated meat, and broke up 1,721 illicit factories, workshops, and shops. Yet the ministry acknowledged that diners still had reason to worry.

In food safety campaigns in past years “some serious problems have been dealt with swiftly and vigorously, but for a variety of reasons, food safety crimes remain serious, and are displaying new circumstances and features,” an unnamed senior official said in the statement.

“For example, there is selling of meat injected with water and meat from animals dead from disease, as well as passing off relatively cheap types of meat as relatively expensive beef and mutton.”

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.

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