Food Safety? Not in China

I have a trip back to the US coming up, so I offered to bring a few things back for my Chinese co-workers. My pregnant friend Grace didn’t even pause to think before telling me I needed to bring infant formula back for her. I have a feeling a few of you are scratching your heads right now thinking; “Can’t you buy formula in China?” You can, but all of my Chinese friends would agree that Grace has made a wise request.

China is struggling with an ongoing food safety crisis, which first caught the world’s attention back in 2008 with the infamous melamine laced infant formula that sickened 300,000 infants, and killed 6 (melamine helps watered down milk appear to be unadulterated when measuring protein, but causes kidney stones in infants). One would have thought that the execution of the farmers responsible would have sent a strong message to all other dairy producers, and these additives would never be an issue again. What hasn’t been as widely reported is that there have been at least 5 more instances of this exact same deplorable act, while the gov’t has arrested the most vocal advocates for food safety.

In fact just today on the People’s Daily there are 4 separate food safety related stories, which provide a broad look at some of the disturbing practices that are leading average Chinese people to list food safety as one of their top concerns.

Pork – This recent scandal that broke about 3 weeks ago involved feeding pigs clenbuterol which makes them grow more quickly with less fat. It’s also poisonous to people. This scandal is big news because it concerns China’s largest producer of pork, and pork is China’s favorite meat. This however seems fairly mild compared to the glowing meat found earlier this week in Shanghai.

Liquor – A few weeks ago China’s wine industry came under investigation for making chemically altered wine. This week a new story is coming to light that at least hundreds of people are involved in making fake booze. As to what that actually means is unclear, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in someway similar to prohibition bootlegging.

Milk – Despite China’s recent closure of ½ of the nation’s dairy suppliers, 3 infants died this week in northern China from drinking poisoned milk. While this instance seems to be the most limited in it’s scope, this furthers Chinese fears over the safety of domestically produced milk. It’s no wonder there are starting to be fights in supermarket aisles over imported infant formula.

Steamed Buns – Shanghai’s largest manufacturer of steamed buns (a very popular breakfast food) had to issue a recall today in light of unsavory practices. It was revealed that when supermarkets returned unsold buns, the factory simply relabeled them, and that there were several chemicals added to the buns that were not listed on any of the packaging.

Ensuring food safety needs to be one of the government’s top priorities in the next few years, as it is one of the issues people are most willing to complain about openly.

21 responses to “Food Safety? Not in China”

  1. Sasha says:

    I’ll never forget the 4 day food poisoning ordeal I had thanks to Chicken from Carrefour. The food safety record in China is truly appalling and worrying. The worst thing is it’s not the street food that’s the biggest worry these days it’s whether or not that fruit of packaged food/drink is going to be toxic. It’s terrible when you can’t even trust supermarket bought food!!! I do wonder how much corruption is involved with the clear lack of progress on this issue. According to my Chinese friends it’s a well known fact in Shanghai restaurants that if you have the money you can get that excellent health rating plaque to put on the wall! How much is corruption effecting this issue elsewhere such as in agriculture, supermarkets etc.

    Yet again an informative and thought provoking post!

    • Tom says:

      To be honest, I’ve never gotten sick from street food here, it’s always been from the “better” restaurants. The list of foods we can’t eat is getting far too long.
      Also I have eaten in restaurants with birds roosting in the rafters, but had still been gov’t approved.

  2. Seven says:

    When I came back from NC, I brought 8 cans of formula for my cousin, which took up 1/3 of my stuff.

  3. Chopstik says:

    As I shared with a friend of mine when I sent her this post – “And they worry about Japanese imports?”

    (Sorry, I know that is rather facetious and I don’t mean to take the issue lightly but it seems that the government is more worried about AWW than food safety when it’s the latter that will bring – and has brought – people into the streets…?)

    • Tom says:

      You are absolutely right. The problem here is again that the gov’t only goes half way on these food safety crackdowns. They make big speeches and try to scare people, but don’t actually put the measures into effect that would save people’s lives.

      • Chopstik says:

        Interesting response from someone else I shared this with – what is the difference between this and genetically modified (GM) food sources in the West that can be problematic? My response was that non-GM food sources are, in many cases, a luxury and they can live with the GM-sources when there is no alternative. In China, you may not necessarily have that luxury. You live with the domestic food sources (GM or not) when there are no imported food sources and hope and pray that there are no problems.

        Unless and until there is better oversight and standards are adhered to (more or less), this problem will not go away. How those in power can miss something so obvious is amazing to me.

  4. […] I have a trip back to the US coming up, so I offered to bring a few things back for my Chinese co-workers. My pregnant friend Grace didn’t even pause to think before telling me I needed to bring infant … Continue reading → […]

  5. john book says:

    As for Japan….. I’ve eaten from sidewalk vendors with mostly great results…. but I once saw a Kyoto vendor drop some cooked sweets onto the side walk and then put them back onto the grill and then sold them to the next customer. (I hoped the re-grilling would kill the germs….)

    I once ate chicken in a small cafe in Osaka…. the deep fryer was quite large but was made so much smaller by the 3 or 4 inches of black, baked-on whatever that covered the sides of the thing. I’m talking really thick !…and really burned black!

    But, my favorite: In a supermarket I saw a display for toilet paper. The sign proudly stated in English and Japanese that the toilet paper was made from “100% re-cycled toilet paper.” And…the rolls were all brown in color…. sure made me wonder…..!!!

    No big scandals here but just a little something to share with you all……

    • Tom says:

      Wow, great stuff John. I’m a big fan of the environment, but recycled toilet paper is probably a step further than I’m willing to take.
      In a market in Longzhou I bought a pineapple and had the vendor peel it. Just before she finished it, she dropped it on the ground and it rolled quite a distance. Then she picked it up and washed it in a bucket of filthy water and handed it to me. I didn’t take my chances with that one.

  6. […] this week we looked a little bit at food safety in China. Today we are going to look at a Chinese market (nothing comes in packages), these are where most […]

  7. […] started when she repeated her request for me to bring back milk powder from the US (read about that here).  I told her that I found it a little sad that she had to import milk powder, and she said, “To […]

  8. […] a whole string of food contamination issues have been popping up in the news from the glowing pork discovered in Shanghai to the contaminated yogurt, toxic baby formula and most recently the […]

  9. Steve says:

    I tend to live in hope that the cooking process kills most germs, but haven’t yet found a way of ignoring the number of kitchen staff that don’t wash their hands after using the toilet, usually just before bringing the food to the table.

    • Tom says:

      One always would hope that it does, unfortunately it does little to help with the chemical contamination in the foods. If someone figures out how to get wait staff to wash their hands here, I’d love to hear about it so I could use the method with our doctors.

  10. Westlake says:

    I will give you my understanding of the root causes of China’ long-lasting food problem:
    – The society are so divided, people in the poor class really can not afford “normal” standard food, like immigrant workers can’t spend the money on normal quality infant formula milk powder as one tin of milk powder will take 1/10 of their monthly salary, creating a big market for low-quality but cheap food.
    – Government is so nonfunctional over regulations on food industry(as many other industries), making the cheating on food quality and adding horrible chemicals in food easy, low-risky and profitable. A deeper reason for the non-performance of government is the lacking of surveillance from public, social media and off course ballots.
    Corruption is only the results of ultimate power hold by the government agencies. Just imagine what kind of pressure FDA will take after a similar infant food scandal took place in US.

  11. FrankL says:

    Hi all,

    My wife and I are planning a 3 week trip to Beijing, X’an, Datong, etc. this coming october. With all the stories I’ve been reading about fake eggs, clenbuterol in pork, ground up birth control pills fed to fish, etc. we’re getting worried about eating something scary. I’m Canadian-born Chinese so I’m fine with the types of foods and even the cleanliness issues (well, to a point). However, when it comes to eating fake food or food not fit for human consumption, I’m really worried. I don’t want to limit ourselves to just KFC’s or other western fast food chains. We were also thinking of buying imported food from a Carrefour or Walmart since they’d be safe.

    I guess my questions are:
    How bad is the unsafe food situation in China?
    What should I avoid or look out for?
    Am I worrying too much?

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    Thank you,

    • Tom says:

      I don’t know if there is a good way to tell if food is safe or not, which is part of what makes it so scary. I think you might be worrying too much, because there is little about it that is within your control. Avoid the cheapest, dirtiest restaurants, make sure the food is cooked when you order it (even if it means avoiding delicious baozi), and try not to think about it. I have found that often I’ll be walking into a restaurant and get the feeling that the food is going to make me sick, listen to that inner voice.
      Even though these incidents effect hundreds of people, out of billions, that risk is still quite low. Also most of these are happening in smaller towns and cities, the places you are going should be relatively safe (by China standards).
      The much scarier part is thinking about how these impurities in the food would effect your body after long-term exposure, which for you probably isn’t going to be a problem in 3 weeks.

      If you aren’t on a Chinese migrant worker budget, there should be little to worry about 🙂

      Hope this is helpful,

  12. FrankL says:

    Hi Tom!

    Thanks so much for your reply. I think we were just freaking out a bit even though we know that media can blow things out of proportion. But then this is China!

    I’m happy to hear from your experience and that does give me peace of mind. I think what you wrote is just what i needed to hear. Okay, China here we come!

    Btw, I love reading your blog. Since I’m Canadian born, most of what I know about China is what I catch from my family and interactions with local immigrant Chinese (we have a large immigrant population here in Vancouver). It’s so interesting to read things about Chinese culture and customs that help explain why my family acts the way it does sometimes. Keep up the great work!

    Best regards, Frank

  13. matt says:

    Living (and eating) in Shanghai for 6 years now. Im also very worried about food safety at the moment. Basically my strategy is to try out restaurants and try to talk to teh owners/managers when im there. if you can do this then your personal requests more likely to get followed. As a vegetarian it makes it that much harder – I dont whine about that,just for readers to note that getting vege food in China is very difficult. Pork, Oil, Shrimps added to anything that sits in teh kitchen for more than 30 secons. My strategy is quite simple – there is now wider access to organic food so buy that when you can. Buy imported milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream. Always start with minimum quantity of any bought food and “test dirve” it. Check it out thoroughly. If you think is safe then continue with that brand. Ask your neighbours where and from whom they buy the basics. There is fake everything, yes even rice, so check it all carefully. Read the labels, ask the locals, do your homework.

  14. Hi Tom, yet another interesting article. Since you wrote this 3 months ago, things haven’t been getting better at all in China. I’m constantly having food safety conversations with my patients in Beijing, and in the summertime we always see an explosion of gastroenteritis, mostly due to the summertime heat causing bacteria to thrive. My usual warning is to always buy organics if you can, or at least stick to the busiest hypermarkets like Walmart and Carrefour — mostly because they have their own supply chains and cold-storage trucks. And for restaurants, bigger is always better — those mom-and-pop small stores, or the street vendors, are much less reliable with food safety, preparation and personal hygiene than a bigger restaurant…

  15. […] been grabbing headlines over the summer: the rising cost of everything, and a growing number of food safety concerns. As the school year begins, it seems these two issues have converged in a way that could have […]

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