Earlier this week Kunming police discovered a small group of illegal factories southwest of the city suspected of having produced hundreds of tons of tainted noodles over the past six months. Two men thought to be in charge of production have been arrested and the facilities cordoned off pending an ongoing investigation.
Investigators from the almost unbelievably named Joint Brigade of the Food and Drug Administration and the Xishan Public Security Bureau of Economic Investigation and Quality Supervision tested noodle samples in March, finding high levels of the chemical sodium metabisulfite — commonly referred to as metabisulfite. They eventually traced the noodles back to a small town located on the western shore of Dianchi Lake outside of Taiping Village (太平村).
When 38 investigators arrived at the suspected production facility for a nighttime raid, workers were completely unfazed and continued to work normally as three van-loads police descended on the factory, according to press accounts. An inspection of the premises turned up a storeroom stacked with bags of rice flour piled next to 25 kilogram bags of metabisulfite and other illegal but unspecified chemicals.
An interrogation of the two brothers led to both admitting they owned the three connected buildings where the rice noodles were made. Confronted with their use of metabisulfite, the two men explained it was only added as a preservative and for its ability to make the noodles appear more attractive. Reporters on-scene at the raid quoted one of the brothers as saying there was no harm in consuming their food and that they "eat the noodles all the time".
The brothers were arrested along with one other worker for violating Chinese food safety laws which stipulate "freshly produced foods may not contain any additives". All three were also charged under suspicion of producing and selling poisonous or harmful food.
Detectives must now attempt to determine if the owners of the noodle factory added large amounts of metabisulfite knowing it was dangerous or if they actually thought it was simply a harmless food whitener and preservative. If the former charge can be proven, the men could possibly receive much harsher sentences in court for intentionally endangering public health.
In the food industry, the chemical compound metabisulfite is used most commonly in diluted form as a preservative in beers and wines. It is also added to many pharmaceutical products and often utilized at water treatment plants. It appears the Kunming noodle-makers were using unadulterated metabisulfite. In its pure form, the chemical can cause all manner of harmful effects in humans. These include asthma-type reactions, vomiting, abdominal pain, disruption of the central nervous system and, at elevated levels, death.
From the raid, law enforcement officials confiscated five tons of noodles, dough and ingredients. The seized materials were all sent to labs for further analysis. One of the arrested men said during a typical day, factory employees would begin work at 10pm and finish around 3am. During that time, they typically produced three tons of noodles that would then be sent by minivan and sold to shop owners near Huangtupo (黄土坡), Majie (马街), Longxiang Jie (龙翔街) and other areas of Kunming.
Kunming, like many cities around China, is no stranger to stories of large-scale production of toxic or potentially dangerous food. In 2013, an illegal operation was broken up that had produced 32,000 tons of 'gutter oil' — enough to supply a year's worth of cooking oil to an estimated 1.5 million consumers. Spring City residents were also involved in a 2008 melamine scandal in which 300,000 people nationwide were poisoned while consuming tainted milk powder products.
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