Home » caitlin meredith's travel blog, kelly west's travel blog, society & culture

Food safety in China: From fear of famine to tainted feast

By 13 June 2009 One Comment

After reports that tainted formula had sickened thousands of babies in China in the fall of 2008, American shoppers cruised the aisles of their local grocery stores warily studying food labels – products with a “Made in China” label got chucked out of the cart.

With concerns already mounting over the hold Chinese products had gained on the American consumer habits, the powdered milk scandal helped spark a national outcry for stricter control of imports by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But the U.S. public wasn’t the only group to demand reform.

“By the time that milk made it to the market, it should have been inspected many times,” said Mr. Xia, a quality control supervisor at a fruit market near Beijing’s Olympic Village, who declined to provide his given name. “But these big companies were trusted, not tested, so many children were poisoned.”

Xia reported that market shoppers became less confident about the government tests after the milk scandal.

Chinese parents whose children had been affected initiated a rare class-action lawsuit against the Sanlu Group and 21 other top dairy companies responsible for manufacturing and distributing the tainted milk, while others boycotted all dairy products.

The decline of consumer confidence isn’t lost on the Chinese government. In addition to shaking up its agricultural inspection agencies – including the execution of key officials following the scandal – on June 1, health minister Chen Zhu announced a new law that will create a national food safety surveillance network, according to China Daily.

But while specific incidents have led to public dissent, Chinese consumers are still far from their Western counterparts in terms of ingredient-by-ingredient scrutiny. For many Chinese, the process of buying food to feed themselves and their family is a mixture of hope, hearsay, and hunches.

“I always look to see if the family selling vegetables looks healthy,” said Jane Wang, a 25-year-old advertising agency assistant. “I figure they must be eating their own [produce], so that’s a good sign.”

Wang judges the goods as closely as she does their vendor. She wrinkled her nose at a carefully arranged pile of identical shiny white eggs.

“If it’s extra beautiful, I won’t buy it,” Wang said. “It makes you think they did something to it.” From her perspective, imperfection is a sign of a “purer” product.

“We have a saying in Chinese: ‘If the insects are eating it, then it can’t be too bad’,” Wang said.

For a Beichu market shopper buying ingredients for a Saturday feast for her grandchildren, claiming loyalty to a single seller reduces the potential health risks. “I don’t care where the fish comes from, as long as it’s from him,” said the grandmother, who declined to give her name.

The milk and other food scandals have heightened public concern, but many Chinese consumers don’t have access to accurate or detailed health safety information.

Mrs. Ma, a Beijing mother shopping for watermelons, said she doesn’t consider food safety very often because she is not sure what she can do about it.

“I don’t have any control,” Ma said. “I just wash my vegetables a lot before I cook with them.”

She was glad the government tested fruit “for chemicals” before it reached the market, but she wasn’t sure of the potential harm from the chemicals – just that too many were “bad for the body.”

Farmers themselves seem unclear on specific risks from exposure to toxic chemicals found in pesticides.

“I don’t think about it,” said Jen Hu Song, a watermelon farmer from Daxing District. “I’m not worried.”

Song, like his father, has cultivated watermelons all his life. Each year, he said, the government offers free classes to educate farmers on pesticide use, but he hasn’t attended for several years.

While the government expands its network and toxin testing units, China, like many recently developed countries, finds itself progressing along the food status continuum. For many in today’s China, the question of “Will there be enough to eat?” has already been replaced with: “Look at all this food.”

Soon, it seems, they will join their more affluent counterparts in asking the question: “What’s in this food I’m eating?”

One Comment »

  • Paige Passano said:

    Very interesting article. I appreciated hearing the perspective of Chinese families because that has been left out of other stories on the topic. I would like to read the whole thing! But I can’t find the link for the full story!!!!!

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.