Here’s a lead to a news story you don’t often read about in this country:

“Chinese police have busted a crime ring that passed off more than $1 million in rat meat and ‘small mammal meat’ as mutton.”

You read that right: Last week NBC News reported that authorities from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security investigated some 380 cases and arrested more than 900 suspects since the beginning of the year for allegedly selling and producing fake or tainted meat products.

According to the reports, during the crackdown police discovered one suspect who had used additives to “spice up” rat, fox and mink meat for sale at so-called “wet markets” in Shanghai and Jiangsu provinces.

Among those arrested were 63 people who allegedly ran an operation in Shanghai and the coastal city of Wuxi that purchased fox, mink, rat and other meat that had not been tested for quality (or safety), processed it with additives like gelatin and passed it off as lamb meat.

This is hardly the first egregious breach of food-safety and purity laws in the world’s most populous country. Truthfully, as anyone who’s ever visited there can attest, a stroll through the outdoor markets in any of the dozens of sprawling urban areas across southern and eastern China brings one face-to-face with hanging carcasses of . . . some sort of animal that hopefully isn’t totally tainted by the fact that it’s been sitting out in the open air for God knows how long.

In this latest scandal, Chinese authorities and police said the crime ring had sold more than $1.6 million in “mammal meat” since 2009. Police confiscated more than 22 tons of fake or inferior meat products after breaking up illegal food plants during the nationwide operation, the ministry said.

Despite persistent efforts by police, “Food safety crimes are still prominent, and new situations are emerging with new characteristics,” the ministry officials said in a statement, citing what they said were “responsible officials.”

Ongoing problems

Food safety problems and environmental pollution continue to plague China, including the use of industrial dyes in eggs. Other examples are worse:

  • In 2008, melamine, toxic chemical with a number of industrial applications in making insulation and thermoplastics, ended up as an adulterant in feed stocks, milk powder and pet food ingredients that were exported. in mainland China for several years now because it can make diluted or poor quality material appear to be higher in protein content by elevating the total nitrogen content. Trials in December 2008 for six people linked to the scandal and ended with two people sentenced to death and executed.
  • In March, more than 16,000 dead and bloated carcasses of pigs were discovered floating in the Huangpu River, which is one of the city Shanghai's main water sources. “Overcrowding” at pig farms upstream was given as the official reason behind the deaths and subsequent disposal of the pigs.
  • In April, a deadly outbreak of the H7N9 bird flu virus began spreading throughout eastern China. It has turned out to be one of the most deadly strains of influenza yet discovered, according to international health experts. The virus has infected 108 people and caused at least 22 deaths.

“This is one of the most lethal influenza viruses we have seen so far,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organization’s assistant Director-General for Health Security, told Reuters. “We are at the beginning of our understanding of this virus.”

The H7N9 strain appears to spread more easily to humans than SARS, a virus that killed dozens of people in Asia a decade ago and eventually caused 800 deaths worldwide before the outbreak was controlled.

A group of international experts has been investigating the current bird flu outbreak for weeks, but admitted just how little is known about this new epidemic. Thankfully, no evidence so far has confirmed person-to-person transmission.

“We are at the very early stages of this investigation,” said Dr. Nancy Cox, who heads Influenza Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Reuters. “There's a lot to be learned.”

One of the lessons to be learned from the situation in China is a cautionary one. We read about such outrages and rat meat being sold as lamb or melanine used to “extend” milk powder and congratulate ourselves that “It could never happen here.”

Of course, one should never say never, but it would be most unlikely that scandals as outrageous as what seems to occur regularly in China would ever be replicated in the United States. However, we need to remember why that is the case.

It’s because we have a regulatory structure that, although it creates burdens for individual producers and operators, ultimately acts to provide necessary protection—and not just protection for customers and consumers but for the industry itself.

Nothing damages someone’s image and the business prospects worse than dangerous, deliberate contamination of food products otherwise considered safe and wholesome. Look at the hit Europe’s beef industry has suffered from the horsemeat scandal, and that didn’t’ even pose a serious health and safety threat.

No one likes regulations that require costly compliance, but in the end, the price paid for maintaining the industry’s integrity is well worth it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.