Lack of Rules, Lack of Ethics. Up to you to do the QC in China!

If you think MSG was bad for you, try some formaldehyde-tainted Chinese cabbage during your next trip to the Mainland!

Living in China, it is an almost daily occurrence to see some item in the newspaper about QC corners being cut in the drive to make more money.  A bridge collapsed yesterday because the contractor pocketed the money allocated for rebar.  The day before the headlines were about tainted medicines.  I can only imagine what it will be tomorrow. Over the years, I have almost grown immune to the quality scandals, but today’s headline shocked me back into reality.   The China Daily reports:

Vegetable dealers in Qingzhou were seen spraying a formaldehyde solution on Chinese cabbage to keep the produce fresh during long rides to faraway markets.

Farmer Zhao says he uses the chemical to keep the cabbage in good condition during a 10-hour journey to Langfang, a small city on the Hebei-Beijing border. “Vegetable dealers in Langfang openly demand formaldehyde-preserved cabbages because they sell more easily.”

He also says the practice is not a new one. “I just did what everyone else was doing for three or four years. Vegetable dealers in other parts of Shandong and Hebei do the same.”

It’s no question that farmers and wholesalers know this stuff is dangerous.

Formaldehyde, used as a disinfectant and embalming fluid, was declared a known human carcinogen. It is also a skin, eye and respiratory irritant.

Then why still use the cancer causing chemical on food?

The answer is two-fold.

1. Lack of ethics when faced with the opportunity for significant savings.  Not only does use of the nasty chemical help the farmers and wholesalers avoid the cost of refrigerated trucks, but

a big bottle of the chemical, about 2.5 liters of solution, sells for only 7 yuan and can keep 20 tonnes of vegetables fresh.

2. The laws in China are vague and were not being enforced.

…unclear how the toxin-using dealers should be penalized, as no such conditions exist in relevant laws and regulations, said Liu.

China’s law on farm produce safety stipulates that the use of preservatives should “conform to relevant technical standards of the state,” but fails to define what preservatives, or how much, are acceptable.

The end result is that the buyers are forced to take measures to protect themselves.

One consumer says, “You must do away with the first layer of leaves, cut the root and rinse well,”

As buyers of manufactured goods in China, we also need to take measure to protect ourselves because if you think ethics, rules and enforcement in China are going to ensure acceptable quality of your product for you, you are sadly mistaken.

However, if you have clear standards in place with your suppliers and you are willing to roll up your sleeves to monitor the situation, then there is a higher chance you will get decent product. But let the poisoned cabbage be a lesson to us buyers that our suppliers in China are prone to cut corners. The mice will play, when the cat is away.

Related articles and videos:

Behind the scenes look at the recent QC recalls

QA vs. QC – what importers need to know

How to find a QC partner

Wishing you successful China sourcing!

About the blogger

Written by Mike Bellamy – author of, “The Essential Reference Guide to China Sourcing” ( and founder of PassageMaker Sourcing Solutions (

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