Authorities in China say they have broken up an international smuggling ring that was trying to sell tonnes of frozen meat -- some of it dating back to the 1970s.

The state news agency Xinhua reported Wednesday that authorities seized 100,000 metric tonnes of beef, pork and chicken wings in raids earlier this month, said to be worth almost $500 million.

The meat caches were discovered in a nationwide crackdown that spanned 14 provinces, the report said. Several gangs were involved in the elaborate smuggling operation, said China’s General Administration of Customs.

At one warehouse, some meat had been frozen for 40 years, destined for supermarkets and restaurants across China, and even sold on the Internet.

One anti-smuggling official in Hunan province was quoted by Xinhua as saying the meat was often transported in non-refrigerated trucks, to save money. The meat has often thawed out several times before reaching customers, he said.

Keith Warriner, a professor of food science at the University of Guelph, told CTV News that the enzymes or proteins breakdown in the meat when it is frozen for so long.

The meat then becomes rancid and gives off a putrid flavour and taste, he explained. This breakdown is what causes people to become sick, and brings on symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea as our body tries to expel it, Warriner said.

Restaurants and supermarkets will try to disguise the putrid taste by putting on spicy sauces, or mixing it with good meat, Warriner said. The raids are a good start to end this practice, he added, but there is still a long way to go.

"It's such a huge country with few inspectors, and such a bureaucratic system that it’s very hard to police," Warriner said. "Domestically, it is literally almost anything goes, because they've only had food safety regulations for the last two years."

It remains unclear where most of the "mystery meat" originated. Officials say it was shipped to Hong Kong, then to Vietnam where it was smuggled into China in order to avoid strict taxes on meat imports.

This is just the latest food scandal to hit China. The most serious scandal came in 2008, when industrial melamine was found in tainted infant formula, leaving 300,000 babies sickened and six died. More recently, rat meat was sold as lamb, and thousands of dead pigs were found in a river.

Food safety has become a politically sensitive concern in China, and so the government has cracked down in a public way on smuggling gangs.

A report from China Daily says experts are now calling for enhanced controls in border regions, to prevent the products from entering China.

With a report from CTV Beijing Bureau Chief Janis Mackey Frayer.