Fire broke out on Sunday evening at a carrot packaging workshop belonging to Longyuan Food in Shouguang City, and was extinguished after around 90 minutes, according to Shouguang officials.
Xinhua, China’s official news agency, revealed that many of the dead were long-time employees who worked 10 months a year for a monthly salary of around US$820.
Faulty freezer to blame
Thirteen people were being treated for injuries, at the last count. Two of these are in a serious condition, one life-threatening.
The results of preliminary investigations show that 140 people were in the building at the time, and the blaze was likely caused by a faulty freezer.
Longyuan Food managers are being questioned by police as the investigation continues.
Founded in 1998, Longyuan Food is an export-orientated firm, with 200 employees and an annual production capacity of 50,000 tonnes.
Poor industrial record
The incident will have revived memories of China’s worst food factory blaze in living memory.
Last year, a deadly blaze at a poultry slaughterhouse in Jilin province killed more than 120 people. The fire was blamed on poor management, lack of government oversight and locked or blocked exits.
Reports at the time said that managers had locked doors inside the factory to prevent workers from going to the toilet, leading to the high death toll.
Workplace accidents of all types killed nearly 70,000 people in China last year, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics.
Like this week’s catastrophe, the Jilin blaze took place in a small-sized city, where local authorities often choose to ignore central government workplace safety regulations ranging from the handling of toxic chemicals to the prevention of occupational illnesses. They choose instead to focus on boosting economic development.
While there has not yet been any suggestion that negligence on the part of the authorities had played a part in the latest fire, officials will be under the spotlight as more Chinese social media users vent their frustration at the spiralling issue of industrial food standards.
In July, after a scandal involving a US-owned Shanghai processor that reused expired meat, public outrage overtook Weibo, China’s alternative to Twitter. Since then, consumers have been getting more vociferous as they rail at food standards implementation—an issue that president Xi Jinping has said is a priority for his administration to address.