For the past six months, the Chinese media has been reporting that rice grown in the south-central Hunan Province contains unacceptable levels of cadmium, a carcinogenic heavy metal.

Last month, an inspection of samples in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, revealed that more than half the batches of cadmium-tainted rice came from three rice mills in the neighboring Hunan Province.

Hunan rice is facing an unprecedented crisis of consumer confidence. 

There is an old Chinese proverb dating from the late Ming period that says: “When Hunan reaps its harvest, all under heaven want for nothing.” The province produces 11 million tons of rice every year – 11% of China’s annual rice crop. However since March, there has been a public panic about Hunan rice.

In many parts in Guangdong Province, it is now difficult to find any Hunan rice. The majority of Hunan’s rice producers have stopped their operations, either partially or totally. The panic has also spread to the rest of the country.

It has been months since the issue first came to light, but Hunan Province officials have stayed silent. State-owned Xinhua news agency says they have been asking for an interview with province authorities since February, but all their requests have been denied. This silence has to some extent exacerbated the spread of panic.

It’s practically impossible for all Hunan rice to be contaminated. Researchers say their sampling shows that 65% of the rice tested in selected samples had unacceptable levels of cadmium. Other researchers say their findings are more in the 20-40% range. 

In effect, most Hunan rice does not have excessive levels of cadmium. There is plenty of premium-quality rice in Hunan province that shouldn’t be targeted by bans and boycotts.

Furthermore, the duty of Hunan Province authorities is to inform the public and tell the truth about the situation, specifying the exact proportion of rice that was found to be contaminated.

Wide-ranging testing and transparency

Hunan needs to learn from the experience of Guangdong province. In February, Guangzhou’s Nanfang Daily newspaper reported that cereal giant Shenzhen Cereals Group had bought 10,000 tons of contaminated Hunan rice in 2009. After inspectors found high levels of cadmium, the rice was supposed to be used for industrial purposes only. However, said the newspaper, the company only disposed of 1% of the tainted rice and sold the rest to consumers at a discount price. 

After the Nanfang Daily report, Guangdong authorities launched a wide-ranging inspection of rice mills and markets in over 20 cities across the province. They discovered nearly 200 batches of tainted rice and published their origins as well as their brands. The contaminated rice was dealt with according to the law.

Obviously, Hunan authorities need urgently to conduct their own wide-ranging inspection across the province. This is the right attitude – not to mention the duty – of a government that is responsible for the public health of its constituents.

This inspection must be truly wide-ranging and should apply to everyone. To gain the trust of the public, credible civil third parties should to be involved in the inspection. The local food control authorities and oversight bodies could preside over the whole operation.

The inspection would have two effects:

First, it would serve to expose the real problems. A lot of "cadmium rice" will be found, which will bring to light issues such as agricultural soil contamination and other problems related to rice cultivation. The current situation is serious, and Hunan authorities can no longer hide from these issues.

Second, it would serve to clear the untainted rice brands, which have been unjustly put in the same back as the contaminated brands. Hunan authorities should allow the producers of untainted rice to put an indication or label on their packaging saying that their rice has passed inspections. This would allow high-quality Hunan rice to be once again sold all over China.

In the future, it is necessary for Hunan Province to make cadmium testing a mandatory thing, and that all its rice is inspected. This would go a long way to restoring the public’s trust.

In any case, Hunan authorities need to talk to the public openly about the cadmium issue – without any further delay.