Friday, January 30, 2009

You Aren't Going To Eat That, Are You?

What, I wonder, do the Chinese think about the latest food scandal here in the United States? According to some statistics I've read, about 300,000 people were sickened in the melamine-tainted milk scandal in China, and about 8 died. That's about .0027%. On the other hand, about 500 people have been made sick from eating salmonella-contaminated peanut products here in the United States - but there have been 6 fatalities, or about 1.2%. It seems pretty clear than salmonella is relatively much more dangerous than melamine. I suspect that this hasn't escaped the notice of the Chinese press.

To make a very (if not overly) broad generalization, the Chinese (those in China, and those abroad) are attentive, and sensitive, to what the foreign press says about "China." (Which is something of an overbroad term - being used to describe the nation, the actual landscape, the people and a government interchangeably.) Many Chinese felt humiliated by international press coverage of the Olympic protests and previous food scandals, and some had gone so far as to say that allegations were being trumped up or fabricated altogether. Americans, on the other hand, seem to be completely oblivious to what the rest of the world thinks about them. (Although, it must be said, this latest scandal might not be getting much international traction - I attempted to see what the BBC was saying about it, and couldn't find anything.) And, for some of America's more vocal conservatives, the idea that what foreigners think is too unimportant to be bothered with is a point of pride - that is, when they aren't priding themselves on their complete disagreement with what they've been told that foreigners think.

While the harsh sentences handed down in prosecutions of the China case are making international headlines, the fact that plant managers at Peanut Corporation of America understood that they were shipping contaminated items seems to be remaining local for right now - likely because in spite of the relatively high mortality rate, the overall scope of the outbreak is pretty small. (Good thing, too - an outbreak on the same relative scale as China's would have a pretty significant death toll attached to it...) There is a suspicion that the Chinese government is acting to show the rest of the world that they're serious about food safety, to protect their export markets. National governments can be really picky about what food they let in, even when it can't be shown to be dangerous - if Chinese food acquires a lasting reputation for being dangerous, it will be a long time before that market recovers. Given that Americans are less sensitive to (and less knowledgeable about) what others think, there isn't likely to be similar pressure for harsh and public punishment.

We'll find out if that's good or bad...

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