Chinese customs have seized around 3 billion yuan ($483 million) worth of smuggled meat, some more than 40 years old and rotting, the official China Daily said on Wednesday, the latest in a grim series of food safety scares.
Beijing toughened food safety rules in April to shake off a reputation for safety scandals that range from donkey meat tainted with fox DNA to milk contaminated with industrial chemical melamine that killed at least six infants in 2008.
Chinese authorities have launched a crackdown on beef and frozen meat smuggling, in addition to a campaign last year to stamp out the smuggling of farm products.
Authorities had busted 21 criminal gangs by June, leading to seizures of more than 100,000 tonnes of smuggled meat, including chicken wings, beef and pork, state news agency Xinhua said. In one bust, police in southern Hunan province arrested 20 people.
Customs officials found some of the meat was more than 40 years old, meaning it dated back to the 1970s. Other parts were rotten and decomposing, the China Daily newspaper said. It was not clear if the seized meat had been destroyed.
"It was smelly, and I nearly threw up when I opened the door," administration official Zhang Tao told the newspaper.
Industry sources say hundreds of thousands of tonnes of beef is being smuggled into China via neighboring Hong Kong and Vietnam, from countries such as Brazil and India, to sidestep Beijing's import curbs.
Meat can last for a long time if continuously frozen, but smuggled meat is often moved under poor storage conditions that lead to repeated thawing, making it eventually go bad.
"To save costs, smugglers often hire ordinary vehicles instead of refrigerated ones. So the meat has often thawed out several times before reaching customers," Yang Bo, an anti-smuggling official in Changsha told the paper.
($1=6.2088 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)