From where I sit - Toxic result of corrosion of ethics

May 21, 2009

The ethics of Chinese scholars have come under intense scrutiny following a recent scandal in the country.

In mid-February, 80 people in the city of Guangzhou were poisoned after eating pork that contained ractopamine, a drug that ensures pigs grow big and lean. It has been banned as an agricultural food additive in China for seven years.

At first, this appeared to be yet another food safety story, but investigations have turned it into a debate about scholarly ethics.

According to a report in the Southern Weekend newspaper, academics have allegedly taken part in the research, production and distribution of agricultural food additives such as ractopamine and clenbuterol hydrochloride over the past two decades, fully aware that they are poisonous.

Ironically, research into clenbuterol hydrochloride in China reached its peak at the end of the 1980s, just as Europe and the US were banning it in response to the poisoning of hundreds of people in Spain, France, Italy and America.

One of the whistleblowers who spoke to Southern Weekend was a former academic at the College of Animal Science at Zhejiang University. He alleged that during research conducted in the early 1990s, he and his team learnt of the side-effects of clenbuterol hydrochloride, and heard that it had been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration. However, they omitted this information from their papers on the drug.

"If we talk about side-effects in the papers, they can't get published," he explained.

It was reported that in 1993, Zhejiang University's Sunny Nutrition Technology Co Ltd was founded and became a key distributor of clenbuterol hydrochloride.

Through product and technology transfer, the Institute of Feed Science at Zhejiang University fostered many agricultural feed enterprises in China, with its turnover growing to more than 3.5 billion yuan (£338 million).

Clenbuterol hydrochloride and ractopamine were banned by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1997 and 2002 respectively, yet the research and marketing of the latter goes on. A big difference in terms of potential harm is that while clenbuterol hydrochloride was used primarily by small farms, ractopamine has been targeted at bigger farms seeking bigger profits.

The research institutes involved in this field include the South China Agricultural University, Zhongshan University, the Wuhan Institute of Technology and the East China University of Science and Technology. It is alleged that some "experts" even give instructions to clients about how they can ensure their pigs pass testing by the authorities.

While topics such as plagiarism trigger doubts about scholarly ethics, the pig-feed scandal has raised more profound issues for China's universities. Fu Jianfeng, an investigative reporter with Southern Weekend, argues that it proves that some scholars are too close to vested interests and that in the extreme instances "their research is based on greed".

An editorial in Southern Metropolitan News blamed universities, too, arguing that the trend towards "co-operation" with business had played a part. It said that because of the lack of government funding, universities switch to research projects that satisfy business needs: "In so many cases, the outcome is that public trust in scholars is compromised."

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