Do you like to eat Chinese?  Perhaps less than you actually do

Article published on Feb. 20, 2015
Article published on Feb. 20, 2015

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

China has been whistle-blown at an increasing rate for its borderline industrial practices, as its economy becomes more intertwined with our own and information circulates more over the web. Among the sources of concern is the use of human hair in the food ingredients produced in the People’s Republic, and then sold all over the world.

China has lost count of the emergency decrees and measures it had to take to calm outrage, after an endless stream of failures to uphold the most basic standards in the food industry. If the reader will recall, the melamine-tainted yoghurt candy scandal will come to mind, when a food producer in Guangdong was arrested for having produced 12 tons of poisonous child food, a mere 6 years after the same corner-cutting practices had cost the lives of 6 children and sent hundreds of thousands to hospitals, in the very same country.  There was no ill-intent, terrorist aim or political point to it; in fact, the industrial producer would have gladly done without the publicity. Simply, when an opportunity to cut down the cost or circumvent shortage in supplies arises, it seems to leave Chinese food-makers with little hesitation.

But lately, it is the use of human hair in industrial applications which has been causing growing concern on Western markets. Human hair has had many uses, and has been recuperated for centuries. The first use has always been extensions and wigs, of course.  Synthetic hair production techniques have improved greatly over the years, but the top notch of the market has always been human hair, which can reach 10 000 GBP per kilo. Also, hair has wonderful properties, when they are bundled up in “booms” and thrown to sea, to soak up oil from oil spills.

But hair also contains cystine, an amino acid, used to make L-Cysteine and carbocisteine, its prime pharmaceutical derivative. L-Cysteine acts as a flavor agent, and when it comes to using the human hair in our food, Western customers are far less enthusiastic. So Chinese producers make no mystery about recycling human for industrial applications. But when they use it in the food ingredients they sell us, producers are remarkably more discrete, both in the press and the law. L-Cysteine is commonly used in our food, as a taste enhancer. It lies under the far less scary name E920, and is only made synthetically, according to the European law, which bans the hair-based version of the amino-acid. Or is it?

The prime production method consisted in dissolving the hair in acid and skimming out the cystine, which is then transformed into L-Cysteine. For years, this production method has been banned, but of course, since human hair is considered waste in most barber shops and beauty salons, temptation is great for producers of the substance to make a little extra cash. European control methods have succeeded in quelling such practices but a great part of the food we buy, or its components come from abroad - namely China.  And because European control agencies have no authority to control processes in the People’s Republic of China, we are left mostly blind.  

As a result, at the end of 2013, human hair was found to be used in the production of soy sauce, in a Chinese plant. These low-level, low-quality and hazardous goods are then discretely injected into normal distribution circuits, and shipped to Western countries. A UK investigation, launched after the horse-meat scandals in Europe to re-build consumer trust, revealed that human hair was being used in the same way, in the bread we buy in our local supermarkets. Even worse, pharmaceutical companies all over the world use hair made carbocisteine for medicine and supplements.

In July of 2014, McDonald’s in China was struggling to find new suppliers, after internal investigations and public denunciations shed light on the appalling conditions in which meat was processed and kept. Given what an enormous customer McDonald’s is, the episode is quite telling: any food producer in the world would give an arm and a leg to sign a supply contract with the world’s biggest fast-food chain. Yet, McDonald’s met with difficulties, because local and national industries were so infected with fraudulent practices. Beef burgers were unavailable for weeks, with a gigantic financial toll for the restaurants. In the end, they turned to Thai producers for clean meat. The exact same phenomenon occurred just weeks later with McDonald’s chicken meat supplies in Japan, for exactly the same reasons. The other fast-food chains followed quickly in their wake.

China’s food production is a failed one, both in quantity and quality. Despite tripling their food production volume in the past 30 years, China isn’t anywhere near feeding itself.  The Republic buys 5 times more food from the United States than it sells in return. Because the challenge of fixing the food industry is so huge no one would even want to take it on, Chinese producers resorted to specialize in basic ingredients. The most “complex” foods sold are along the lines of apple juice and cod - 50% of the American consumption of such goods comes from China. But the danger lies below: storage and production processes can vary, but garlic is garlic, cod is cod, and apple juice is apple juice.  When it comes to making additives, the more invisible stuff, there is simply no way  to guarantee that the products will be properly made or that they will get anywhere close to Western standards.

Paradoxically, China exports most of its own food, and then imports Western food in return. Of course, such bi-directional fluxes are quite common in most countries, but it is particularly marked in the case of China. Perhaps they simply know better than to buy their own food.