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Rat meat sold as mutton: Crackdown sparks dozens of arrests in China

Andy Wong / AP file

People carry sticks of barbecued mutton through a crowd at a celebration in Beijing. Chinese authorities have announced a crackdown on sales of tainted and fraudulent meat, including rat passed off as mutton.

BEIJING -- Chinese police have broken a crime ring that passed off more than $1 million in rat and small-mammal meat as mutton in a food safety crackdown that coincides with a bird flu outbreak and other environmental pressures, authorities said.

Authorities have arrested 904 suspects since the end of January for allegedly selling and producing fake or tainted meat products, the Ministry of Public Security said in a statement posted on its website on Thursday.

Health officials in Taiwan are on guard after one of its citizens contracted the deadly strain of bird flu while on a business trip in China. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

During the crackdown, police discovered one suspect who had used additives to spice up and sell rat, fox and mink meat at markets in Shanghai and Jiangsu province.

Police arrested 63 suspects connected to the crime ring in a case valued at more than 10 million yuan, or $1.6 million, in sales since 2009.

Despite persistent efforts by police, "food safety crimes are still prominent, and new situations are emerging with new characteristics," the ministry's statement said, citing "responsible officials."

Police confiscated more than 22 tons of fake or inferior meat products after breaking up illegal food plants during the nationwide operation, the ministry said.

Food safety and environmental pollution are chronic problems in China, and public anxiety over cases of fake or toxic food often spreads quickly.

More than 1,000 dead ducks have been fished out of a river Sichuan, China. The discovery comes as the country deals with anger over the dumping of over 16,000 pigs elsewhere in China. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

In April, many consumers lost their appetite for poultry as an outbreak of the H7N9 bird flu virus spread in China. Sales dropped by 80 percent in eastern China, where the virus has been most prevalent, although experts stress that cooked chicken is perfectly safe.

In March, more than 16,000 rotting pigs were found floating in one of Shanghai's main water sources, triggering a public outcry. Overcrowding at pig farms was probably behind the die-off and the pigs' disposal in the Huangpu River.

The public security ministry said police had confiscated more than 15 metric tons of tainted pork in Anhui province, although as much as 60 metric tons had been sold in Anhui and Fujian provinces since mid-2012.

But it was the rodent meat in particular that people couldn't stomach, with Internet users turning to the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo to vent their outrage.

"Rats? How disgusting. Everything we eat is poison," one user wrote.

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