Chinese Food Scare Spills Over Into Kyrgyzstan

Imported flour thought to contain the same harmful chemical identified in Chinese dairy product scandal.

Chinese Food Scare Spills Over Into Kyrgyzstan

Imported flour thought to contain the same harmful chemical identified in Chinese dairy product scandal.

A scare involving imports of Chinese flour has raised concerns about the rigour with which the Kyrgyz government enforces food safety standards.

While the authorities have claimed they reacted as soon as they became aware there was a problem, the discovery of contaminated flour has highlighted defects in the way imported food is checked.

Reports that melamine, a potentially harmful chemical, had been found in a consignment of flour imported from China surfaced on a Kyrgyz news website on October 23. The report also alleged that the flour was infested with khapra beetle, a pest that originates from southeast Asia and is seen as a major threat to foodstuffs.

Both claims were confirmed the following day. At a press conference in Bishkek, Jolon Omkeev, who heads the Kyrgyz agriculture ministry’s grain testing office, said a substance believed to be melamine had been found in grain samples.

Omkeev said his laboratory was awaiting the results of tests done on samples sent to Russia, which he explained was necessary before a formal complaint could be lodged against the importer. He added that Kyrgyzstan did not have the facilities to test accurately for the presence of melamine.

Melamine is a man-made substance that, when added to food products, makes it appear that they have greater protein content. It is harmful to human health, and is the chemical that contaminated dairy products in the recent scandal in China, where four children died and more than 50,000 fell ill after consuming tainted baby milk powder.

A government statement also issued on October 24 said larvae, probably of the khrapra beetle, had been found in 112 tons of Chinese flour that arrived in Kyrgyzstan on September 30. That consignment was impounded upon inspection, said the statement.

The same day, the Chinese embassy in Bishkek issued a press release stating that it had received full documentation from testing carried out in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, confirming that the imported flour was safe and of good quality.

The flour was part of the last batch of a total of 5,000 tons imported from China by the state agency Kyrgyzresursy over the last year. The first shipment was delivered last December, and the final consignment arrived on October 7.

The flour formed part of a Kyrgyz government policy to purchase grain to top up national reserves and provide poor families with subsidised flour. The measure was approved last year after the authorities were forced to draw on strategic grain reserves to offset rapid rises in bread prices.

In the rush to secure adequate food supplies, the government may have failed to look closely enough at some safety issues.

Taalaybek Dyusheev, deputy director of the National Institute for Standards and Metrology, said Kyrgyzstan’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, WTO, had required it to lift all barriers to free trade, as well as import tariffs.

“Following Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the WTO, we abolished quality requirements [for imported products], leaving only the requirement for safety,” he said.

There are now question-marks over whether the earlier deliveries of flour from China were checked thoroughly enough.

“The first consignment went to the mill at Balykchi and was distributed to low-income families and pensioners,” said Larisa Saikina, who heads a grain-testing laboratory. “We didn’t find any pests that would have required a quarantine order. Although the flour wasn’t up to standard according to many of the benchmarks set out in the [accompanying] certificate, it was basically OK.”

One of the more alarming aspects of this case is that although the government says the consignment that arrived on September 30 was impounded immediately after it was inspected, flour delivered on or after that date appears to have made its way to its destination unimpeded.

Staff at a mill in Karabalta say they took delivery of two freight cars full of flour on October 10.

“The wagons arrived at night, [some] sacks burst and the flour spilled out – it had a distinctly unusual smell,” said one eyewitness, a mill worker who asked not to be named.

“A week later, another consignment arrived and the management refused to accept it,” he said. “There was a terrible hoo-ha. High-ranking officials came to see us, and there was a Chinese representative there too. He and one of the officials demanded that the sacks be unloaded, but the head of the quarantine service and our own bosses categorically refused.

“One of them shouted at our people that they’d be forced to accept the goods and they’d have to pay penalties for the hold-up.”

This source said the last batch of Chinese flour was now sitting at the Karabalta plant – but a seal had been placed on it signifying that it was not to be touched.

Aside from the government’s policies on food safety, many of the observers interviewed by IWPR agreed there were problems at the point of entry to Kyrgyzstan. Lax inspections are compounded by corruption.

According to Saikina, “The problem isn’t that they dropped quality standards; it’s that there is an awful lot of corruption in this country. Custom officials set own their tariffs [for bribes], and any businessman who pays up can import any product, even of the most dubious quality.”

Saikina added that the private companies that are licensed to issue product quality certificates often hand over the papers without testing the item in question, in return for a bribe.

An anonymous member of the financial police noted that officials as well as businessmen take a cut when goods are approved for import without going through the proper checks.

Commenting on the contaminated flour, he said, “There’s a danger that the whole affair will be placed on the back burner. But I’m hoping that after the publicity it’s had, the culprits will be punished.”

Nikolai Bailo, a member of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, told IWPR it was time to introduce additional checking mechanisms.

“Imported products have been through a first stage of quality control in their country of origin, and we will shortly be seeking to require that a second round of tests take place in our country,” he said.

Gulzat Nadyrova is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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