Meat that had been frozen for up to 40 years old was smuggled into China through a secret supply chain set up by gangs at home and accomplices abroad, according to law enforcement officers.
The criminal network was revealed by customs officials after they busted 14 gangs in 14 provinces and regions in a crackdown on the smuggling of rotten frozen meat products, dubbed "zombie meat" by the media.
The trade in expired meat developed to meet booming demand for meat products.
The General Administration of Customs said officers confiscated more than 100,000 metric tons of smuggled frozen meat valued at 3 billion yuan (S$654 million), if sold, including chicken wings, beef and pork.
Some of the seized meat had been kept for as long as 40 years and was sold to customers at sidewalk snack booths and small restaurants in a number of cities.
In Changsha, capital of Hunan province, customs officers broke up two gangs with a total of 20 members on June 1 and seized 800 tons of products that, if sold, would rake in more than 10 million yuan.
Changsha People's Procuratorate issued arrest warrants for the 20 suspects who are alleged to have smuggled and transported the meat.
A prosecutor who is handling the case said gang members colluded with foreign accomplices.
A senior official at the administration's anti-smuggling department, who declined to give his name, said that most of the smuggled meat comes from abroad, including the United States and some European countries.
"In order to make large profits, suspects in the US colluded with their associates in China, and the gang members assumed different tasks to form a complete and secret supply chain, including offering supplies, smuggling, transportation, storage, manufacturing and sales," he said.
Zhang Tao, a senior official at the anti-smuggling bureau of the Changsha Administration of Customs, said smugglers usually purchase the frozen meat for very low prices in foreign countries, including the US, and send it to Hong Kong in refrigerated containers.
The products are then transported via Vietnam to Chinese border areas in Yunnan province and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region where the consignments are divided up and processed before being delivered to restaurants and snack booths, he said.
"The frozen meat is moved under poor conditions, repeatedly thawed or even refrozen after it has already gone bad, which poses a serious threat to people's health," he said.
According to the general administration, some of the confiscated meat is much older than their expiration dates suggest, with some being more than 40 years old.
Gao Guan, deputy secretary-general of the China Meat Association, said many countries freeze and store meat to maintain strategic reserves and keep prices stable.