On China’s Menu: General Tso’s Rat and Poison Peking Duck

May 6 (Bloomberg) -- In China, it’s often said that a person who commits fraud is “hanging out a sheep’s head to sell dog meat.” The meaning is wide-ranging -- and metaphorical. But recently, thanks to a stream of food scandals, the folk saying has begun to bear an uncanny relationship to the truth.

Last Thursday, China’s Ministry of Public Security announced that in February police arrested 63 people involved in selling rat meat mixed with mink, fox, gelatin, red food coloring and nitrates -- as lamb.

The details of the crime are not pretty -- or appetizing. According to the official account, police seized more than 10 tons of “semi-finished” products and raw materials, including -- in addition to rodent, fox and mink -- various chemicals. Why the presumably expensive mink and fox? One expert, quoted by the Dazhong Daily newspaper, suggested that such meat was likely sold by fur farms that couldn’t sell their skinned carcasses via legitimate, safe and hygienic means. Worse yet, it turned out that the rat-mink-fox-gelatin-nitrate lamb-like combo had been making its way to Shanghai hotpot restaurants since 2009.

On Friday, police in Zhoushan, a small city near Shanghai that has been unable (or unwilling?) to stem the tide of counterfeit meat flowing into the region’s plentiful hotpot restaurants, did the next best thing: They posted a (truly disgusting) photo guide to differentiating between real lamb, and rat-fox-mink-gelatin-nitrate lamb-like compound (the fat pulls off the red meat in different ways, for example), to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social network.

The guide may turn out to be useful. In China, there’s always another food scandal around the corner. In February, police in Liaoning province announced that they’d seized 40 tons of fake lamb made from duck dipped in poisonous chemicals. Four years ago, police busted a gang selling fake lamb manufactured from duck dipped in lamb urine. It’s not all about lamb, either: The people of Shanghai are barely a month removed from nightly news of dead pigs -- they exceeded 16,000 in total -- floating in the city’s water supply, and setting off an online stir.

Indeed, what’s perhaps most disturbing about the recent fake-lamb scandal isn’t that it happened, but that it’s boring. Elsewhere such incidents might set off riots. The latest fake-lamb episode didn’t even trend on Chinese social media.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)