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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 11:43 a.m., Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bun story fake, China says; White Rabbit candy defended

By Audra Ang
Associated Press Writer


Customers buy steamed buns, called baozi, at a sidewalk stall in Beijing, China.

AP Photo/Greg Baker

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A Filipino sales clerk arranges locally manufactured White Rabbit candies after Chinese-made candies were pulled from store shelves at a supermarket in Manila, Philippines, today.

AP Photo/Aaron Favila

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BEIJING — Chinese police have arrested a journalist accused of faking an investigative report on buns stuffed with shredded cardboard that made headlines around the world and Beijing Television apologized for airing the footage.

The arrest came as China struggled to contain growing allegations about product safety that have hammered its reputation as a food and drug exporter and alarmed people at home. In the latest development, a Chinese candy maker denied Philippine assertions that one of its products was tainted with formaldehyde.

Beijing Television apologized during an evening news broadcast, saying the bun report was a hoax and the reporter had been taken into custody, but did not say when. A copy of the Wednesday broadcast was obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday.

"He used deceptive means to get the footage on the air," said news anchor Wang Ye, without giving specifics. "The Beijing Public Security Bureau has taken the criminal suspect, Zi, into custody and he will be severely dealt with according to law."

The official Xinhua News Agency said the suspect's full name is Zi Beijia.

Zi's footage appeared to show a makeshift kitchen where vendors made fluffy buns stuffed with chopped-up cardboard that had been softened in caustic soda and mixed with pork fat and flavoring.

The story, allegedly shot with a hidden camera, was first broadcast on Beijing Television's Life Channel on July 8 and then again three days later on China Central Television.

The footage gained worldwide media attention, reinforcing the image of China's food safety woes. It made headlines in China as well and created a buzz on the Internet, where people flooded chat rooms with comments expressing shock and disgust. On YouTube, the video had been viewed more than 6,000 times by Thursday.

Police said Zi had told editors he wanted to investigate the quality of pork buns, and spent two weeks visiting stands but could not find anything to report, Xinhua said. He filmed the fake report after coming under pressure to produce a story, the agency said.

Beijing Television said Zi brought meat, flour, cardboard and other ingredients to a downtown Beijing neighborhood in mid-June, and had four migrant workers make the buns for him while he filmed the process.

The station said it was "profoundly sorry" for the fake report and its "vile impact on society," and vowed to prevent inaccurate news coverage in the future. However, the apology did not answer questions about how the report ended up being aired or what sort of editorial checks were done on the story.

Some analysts suggested the Chinese government, in an attempt to improve the country's reputation after a spate of product safety problems, may have ordered the television station to tell the public the story was fabricated.

Elizabeth Economy, an Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said she would not be surprised if the government had punished the reporter to deflect criticism.

"In general, Beijing's first line of defense has been denial in the face of such claims that paint a negative picture of the government," she said. "We don't know the truth in this case, but anything is possible."

Andrew J. Nathan, political science department chairman at Columbia University, said the Chinese government's usual response is to punish those who publish or broadcast such stories, rather than going to such lengths to declare the stories untrue.

"The propaganda department certainly has the power to force the station to say it was a wrong report, but that doesn't strike me as a likely scenario," said Nathan.

"The department has been working since 1949 and they have a set of standard operating procedures. Normally, if the story is true but it violates the propaganda line they will criticize, demote or punish the editors or reporters."

Meanwhile, candy maker Guan Sheng Yuan Co. denied Philippine allegations that one of its products was tainted with formaldehyde, an embalming fluid and preservative.

The Shanghai-based confectioner said it sent samples of its "White Rabbit" milk candy to a lab for testing after it was banned by the Philippine Bureau of Food and Drugs.

"Guan Sheng Yuan Co. makes this pledge to society: Absolutely at no point during the manufacturing of White Rabbit milk candy are preservatives added," the company said in a statement posted on its Web site.

Rivals have made numerous counterfeit versions of the popular candy, the company said, calling the Philippine food and drug bureau "irresponsible" for not checking the candy's authenticity, and threatening to sue.

Joshua Ramos, deputy director of the Philippine food and drugs bureau, insisted Thursday that samples of the candy the agency found tainted with formaldehyde were genuine and obtained from legitimate distributors.

"They have to prove that they were fake," Ramos told AP. "As far as we are concerned, the samples we got came from legitimate sources."

The speed of Guan Sheng Yuan's response underscored concerns the deteriorating reputation of Chinese food exports could spread to some of the country's best-known brands.

In a statement Thursday, the Chinese Embassy in Washington moved to calm fears about the safety of China's exports, saying it takes the issue seriously and is waging an "ongoing campaign" to address the problem. It also cautioned against using individual lapses in safety to impugn the country's entire food industry.

"Certain isolated cases should not be blown out of proportion to mislead the public into thinking that all food from China is unsafe," the statement said.


Associated Press writer Lily Hindy in New York contributed to this report.