China has a pretty poor record of food safety scandals, with everything from contaminated baby formula, food fraud, and gutter oil—i.e., used oil that has been discarded and harvested from backyard and street gutters to be reused—making headlines over recent years. The scandals have shaken consumer confidence, and all the bad news has driven many Chinese consumers to seek presumably safer imported products.
But while consumers have been worrying about tainted comestibles, an unassuming category of culinary ingredients has been posing an equally grave threat: fake seasonings and sauces.
A Beijing News investigation found 50 underground factories making fake condiments using harmful ingredients in Duliu, a town about 30 kilometers outside of Tianjin. In these illegal workshops, industrial salts, recycled spices bought from other factories, and other food additives were blended into seasonings and sauces that were subsequently sold to unsuspecting consumers across the country in brand-name packaging.
According to Shanghaiist, the factories operated by night in unsanitary conditions, shipping off pallets of fake product in knockoff boxes and bottles labeled as Nestlé, Lee Kum Kee, and other reputable companies, complete with bar codes copied from authentic packaging to fool inspectors and inventory systems. The counterfeit goods were moved quickly in order to make it difficult for police to bust the operations.
The re-used and industrial ingredients aren't just gross and illegal—they're also dangerous. The industrial salts recovered in the investigation are carcinogenic and loaded with heavy metals, and can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. Judging from the photos, which depict a police raid busting a number of factory workers in the act of mixing spices, items produced at the factory included Maggi seasoning, seafood seasoning, and chicken bouillon.
MUNCHIES has reached out for comment from Maggi, Nestlé, and Lee Kum Kee but has not yet received a response.
Beijing News reports that the factories were surrounded by surveillance cameras and that locals operated as lookouts for police and other would-be investigators. Dozens of employees worked in the factories, which produced about 100 million yuan ($14.5 million) in phoney goods annually.
That's a whole lotta spice. Buyer beware.