Baijiu, China’s Latest “Food” Scandal

November 22, 2012

If you’re keeping score at home (and I know you are), the latest “food” safety scandal involves a well-known brand of baijiu, China’s infamous white wine, which as everyone knows is extracted and refined from the tears of liberal economists. Or maybe it’s distilled from rice and other types of grains. The news broke a couple days ago that a nasty chemical had been found in Jiugui brand baijiu, a name that can be translated as “drunkard.” Classy.

Provincial authorities have confirmed that a high-end band of Chinese liquor contains a harmful chemical, while the liquor association has defended the company saying there is no national standard regulating the use of the plasticizer.

The Hunan Institute of Product Quality Supervision and Inspection announced on Wednesday that up to 1.04 milligrams per kilogram of the chemical, Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), was found in the famous Jiugui brand of the traditional Chinese liquor known as baijiu. The Hunan quality watchdog has ordered the Jiugui Liquor company to determine the source of the plasticizer.

Experts say the chemical used in plastics may cause harm to the human immune and reproductive systems.

Uh oh, not another food safety scandal. Or is it? I’m going to go out on a limb here and give you three reasons why this is not your average food safety problem.

First, the product isn’t really food. Yes, some folks ingest this stuff, but the jury’s still out on whether this liquid is even really potable. People routinely put stuff in their mouths that isn’t safe, like cigarettes and Big Macs. I once saw a guy on a reality show eat musk ox testes; there’s no accounting for taste.

Second, the news should not have reported that a toxic chemical was found in baijiu, but that “another questionable substance” was found in the disgusting soup o’ gunk that is called baijiu. Look, I’m not a big fan of this particular kind of jet fuel. Granted, I don’t drink the hard stuff anymore, not since the Flaming Dr. Pepper Incident of 1990 in Claremont, California, the details of which I am unable to divulge per court order.

The point is, baijiu is nasty. I’m sure there are plenty of you connoisseurs out there who can wax rhapsodic about the subtle differences in baijiu, explaining how we can all best enjoy the flavor experience. But I bet I can find some gear heads who could give me the same info about the different varieties of gasoline, based on lead content.

What it comes down to is that you can ingest this toxic chemical, which may damage your immune system and turn you into a eunuch, or you can drink unadulterated baijiu and burn/scar the entire length of your alimentary canal (and yes, I mean the entire length).

Third, and this is based on preliminary information at this point, it doesn’t sound like the well-intentioned (but, let’s face it, evil) folks at Jiugui put this chemical into the baijiu for nefarious reasons. We are by now used to the farmer who injects shit into his livestock to add weight, the retailer who sprays crap on his produce to make it look shiny, and the bastards who added amino acids to their milk products to give it a higher protein content.

In this case, it appears that the plasticizer (i.e., a chemical used to make plastic more flexible) originated in containers used in the production chain. In other words, this might be chemical leaching going on here, not a deliberate addition of a harmful substance.

So, just another food safety scandal? I don’t think so. On the other hand, the press has given this story a great deal of attention, so it looks like the government might actually investigate this chemical leaching issue with plastic containers. This of course involves more than just baijiu, so stay tuned for more “revelations” in the coming days.