Water-Injected Meat in China: Is the Profit Motive to Blame?

It seems that human ingenuity really is limitless…at least when it comes to new and devious ways to adulterate food in profit-maximizing ways.

And yes — *sigh* — the evidence, yet again, is a case from China.

From China Journal:
Water-Injected Meat: The Next Chinese Food Scandal?

Along with the recurring scandals, China’s food industry is plagued by a number of troubling “open secrets.” Everybody knows about them, it seems, and it’s no big deal until someone gets hurt and then it becomes a very big deal.

The latest open secret may be the practice of injecting meat with water to raise the weight (and hence value) of the product. This week, Feng Ping, a CPPCC delegate and expert at the China Meat Products Integrated Research Center, publicly challenged the lack of government oversight that has allowed the practice to go on for over 20 years, according to the Chinese-language Southern Weekend. (An English summary of the report, from Shanghai Daily, is available here).

According to the report, the practice, in its more gruesome-sounding forms, involves either forcing water into the stomachs of pigs and cattle shortly before slaughter, or injecting water into the hearts of recently slaughtered animals, so that the water will quickly flow into the animals’ flesh through the blood vessels. Another method involves simply soaking chunks of meat in water to absorb the liquid.

Eek. Lovely.

OK, now while my first paragraph above pandered shamelessly to your cynicism about profit seeking, I’m next going to try to convince you that the problem, here, isn’t profit-seeking.

The problem in cases such at this can no more be laid at the feet of profit-seeking than can the problem of thugs cornering people in alleyways and stealing their wallets. This isn’t just a case of profit-seeking. It’s a case of profit-seeking-by-socially-non-preferred methods. There are good ways to seek profits (ways that go by names like “innovation” and “improved efficiency”) and there are bad ways to seek profits (ways with names such as “lying” and “stealing”). In fact, here’s a rule of thumb: next time someone screams “profit motive,” remind them how little that explains. Ask them, “OK, sure. Someone wanted to make a profit. But what was the particular means of profit-making here, why was it objectionable, and how did they end up getting away with it?

(For more on the distinction between socially preferred and socially non-preferred ways of seeking profit, see the terrific paper “Business Ethics Without Stakeholders,” by my pal Joe Heath. You can find it on Joe’s page.)

4 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    Does anyone think that ethics is ever seriously considered in totalitarian states? The Chinese Communist Party is a corrupt oligarchy and now a hereditary one with party membershiips being automatically handed down.The amount of party members caught in “corruption sweeps” annually is tiny and they are only shot or imprisoned primarily for propaganda purposes. When a government is not accountable to the people, and instead the people are the servants of the state, ethics will go by the wayside. Get at the source of the problem: the one-party dictatorship is corrupt and was never elected. It is a gerontocracy propped up by the army and a huge secret Laogai (Gulag) system to jail and torture dissenters. There is a little irony here Chris in that some of the rich Chinese students in the South end of Halifax and who attend your university’s business school are the children of rich party cadres. Only party cadres or those in favour with the CCP are granted student visas and have parents who have colluded with that evil regime. You have probably had some Gucci-clad CCP cadre children in your ethics classes. You’ll have interesting case studies of amoral Chinese firms and businesspeople in ample supply until democratic accountability and freedom come to China. – Kevin McDonald

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Kevin:I assume your first question is a rhetorical one. But the answer is “yes.” Some people (like me) do think that people living in China do sometimes think about ethics.I know of no reason to think that all ethical reasoning disappears under totalitarian regimes. The pressures on it differ, to be sure, and can be extreme. But no regime exercises sufficient control over its people to supplant all exercise of individual judgment.We’re looking for the causes of wrongdoing in factories. How does saying “Well, it’s a totalitarian regime” point to an answer?Chris.

  3. Anonymous on

    Hi Chris: I didn’t say ethics “disappears”, I said it is not seriously considered under totalitarian regimes. When the state controls so much of the means of production and the state seeks to make itself the source of all morality — even suppressing religions and private societies with differing ethical viewpoints, then yes, pleasing the state, and especially not displeasing the state take an inordinate amount of a person, firm or corporations’ time. A complete ethical vacuum does not come into being. Chinese people are still blessed with the same ability to access the natural moral law, but ask anyone who has lived under communism: it wears your soul down. Solzhenitsyn wrote of it as a soul-deadening system that made otherwise ethical people do bad things. Ethics grows, blooms or wilts in the political system surrounding it. Communism is an evil system and that evilness pervades so much of Chinese practices. So much so that a blog post could not contain the examples of recent and past Chinese business malfeasance. Factories in a totalitarian regime are being told that Chinese Christian Churches are “unpatriotic” as well as other religions that have better ethical doctrines for them. As long as it does not usurp the power and authority of the CCP, firms will be tempted to cut a corner here, pour some melamine in milk here. Taking the risk of being caught is not about ethics to them, just greed and since they are in a system that says “If Beijing does not enforce it or object, you can probably get away with it”. If the state’s power is illegimate and propped up by the barrel of a gun, that will effect your thinking and behavior for the worse. – Kevin McDonald

  4. […] Before that, lead paint used in toys was the big issue. Last year, there was a scandal involving injecting water into meat to increase its weight. And it’s not just a matter of a few scandals. According to […]

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