Dead Pigs, Fake Honey, and IKEA Cakes: Food Safety in China

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A joke circulated by the former head of Google China, Li Kaifu:
Beijinger: “We Beijingers are the most fortunate, we can open the window and have free cigarettes.”
Shanghainese: “That’s nothing, we can enjoy pork soup simply by turning on our faucets!”

With 16,000+ pigs recently found floating in a river near Shanghai, I thought that it’s a good time to talk about food safety in China and how we make decisions about what food to buy. With all of the reports about lack of food safety and regulation here, despite some apparent efforts to regulate and improve safety, it seems like there’s two ways to approach the situation: buy relatively blindly and hope for the best, which is what I’ve always done before when it was, at most, just Manu and me, or get some handle on what’s going on in certain sectors and purchase selectively.

For good and for bad, I’ve learned a lot about China’s dairy industry through conversations with our friend, Megan, an anthropologist at JMU, who focuses on food safety in China, specifically the dairy industry, and is here for the year researching it. Before we even arrived she gave me the low-down that virtually all milk from Chinese companies contains antibiotics, with one company, Sanyuan, as an exception. There are also two organic companies, Wondermilk and Green Yard, that are also exceptions, but their milk is very expensive and we drink a lot of milk in our household! UHT imported milk is another option with the price fairly equivalent to the Sanyuan liter, so we considered this a secondary choice, as we’d rather stay more local, if possible.

By learning about the pervasiveness of antibiotics in the milk, we also found out the reason that a majority of yogurt in China is drunk through a straw: the antibiotics kill a lot of the yogurt culture, which makes it runny. This information hasn’t been enough to steer Manu and me away from the delicious barley yogurt we’ve discovered (see photo), but we don’t give it to Isabel, the only kid in our home who actually likes yogurt. As I noticed that even Sanyuan’s whole milk yogurt also tends to be pretty thin, I wasn’t surprised to find out recently from Megan that the latest reports show Sanyuan’s milk to also contain antibiotics, so we’ve moved into only purchasing UHT boxed milk, preferably from Australia or Europe. (The reason that China’s whole supply appears tainted is that despite different companies and labeling, collected milk apparently goes into a single pool.)

As for fruit and vegetables, at first we were buying whatever looked good, including the delicious looking strawberries that Sophia, in particular, loves. We should have thought about the “dirty dozen” though, as strawberries are definitely something that’s recommended to only buy organic. Here in China strawberries are supposedly pesticide-laden, so we’ve begun passing by the gorgeous flats on the street (see photo) and promised Sophia that we’ll buy them once organic strawberries are available this spring. Aside from the berries, I’ve heard that the apple industry here is pretty good, so we’ve been buying plenty, although I make sure to either peel them or use fruit and vegetable wash on the skin before eating. Oranges in their many forms, pineapples (it’s pineapple season now and they’re sold on sticks in the street – see photo), Asian pears, pomelos, watermelons (the yellow-fleshed variety is popular), and dragon fruit are available everywhere and, fortunately, most have more serious exteriors, which should keep the pesticides from penetrating. As for vegetables, I’m buying mainly from a local, so-called wet-market shop that has an organic label outside (though whether it actually is is doubtful), including lettuce, bell peppers, peas, corn, potatoes, onions, etc. My favorite find, though, has been the huge variety of mushrooms available at fantastic prices (I’ve been loving making stir-fries with them – see photo). The greatest thing about buying fruits and veggies in this local market is that I can come home laden with three large bags, including whole large fruits, and spend about 100 RMB (just over $15). The added bonus is that they have fixed prices, so I don’t have to bargain, which I’ll gladly leave to Manu!

Since we’re not vegetarians, we do need to contend with buying and eating meat and fish here. Pork is by far the most popular meat (maybe those Shanghai pigs had a better end than most?!), which tends to be a cultural preference, but are definitely easier to raise with less land required. It’s easy to get great cuts of fresh pork very inexpensively. Some stores even have a pork reader (see photo), where you can scan the UPC symbol on your package of pork and get an immediate readout of where your pig came from (Portlandia would love this! Watch the “Is It Local?” link below). Chicken is also easy to purchase and we eat some of it (I’m not thinking too much about antibiotics in this case…). We’ve purchased frozen beef a couple of times, but haven’t been very excited about the meat, so will probably not buy much more. On the other hand, lamb is very popular, but since we have a great Uighur BBQ stand very close to our house, we’ve gotten our lamb fix there about once a week.

Fish and seafood, sadly, we’ve had to virtually ignore. While there are a plethora of different fresh fish and seafood available in local supermarkets (see photo), with a much larger selection than in the average U.S. supermarket, we’ve heard that they contain mercury across the board, with river fish even worse than sea dwelling ones. Our fish has been limited to purchasing salmon at IKEA and some farmed tilapia at the German supermarket chain, Metro.

The biggest stress for us could be purchasing baby formula (fortunately, Isabel’s been exclusively breast-fed). The industry has never recovered following the finding of melamine in 2008 and more recent findings of high levels of mercury and aflatoxin. In fact, so few Chinese trust the industry that the demand for foreign brands has skyrocketed and Hong Kong, the U.K., and the Netherlands have all put a limit on how much they’re willing to export to China (there’s now a shortage of baby formula in Hong Kong following a two can limit when leaving the country and the subsequent creation of a grey market). Apparently, the baby formula industry here has very successfully touted the “benefit” of using formula versus the “inadequate” (and free) breast milk, so a lot of people who can afford it choose to feed their babies with formula. Add to that the fact that a majority of women in urban China work outside the home and the use of formula, though more expensive than breast milk, is easier to deal with than regular pumping.

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Fortunately, I pass right by the baby formula sections

The fact is, people in China are concerned about food safety and don’t have much faith in the central government’s efforts to protect them through regulation. Consider that the food and dairy industries have many cogs in a much larger wheel and managers tend to be responsible for a particular component: even if they know what’s going on elsewhere, they tend to ignore it, as it’s not their specific responsibility. On top of that, China has a history of companies deceiving consumers, prioritizing short-term profits above all else. A good example is the creation of fake honey and even fake honeycomb! (read an article from a Shanghai newspaper asserting that half of China’s honey that is currently available is fake).

As scary as all of this information is, there are plenty of shopping options in Beijing where a discerning shopper with some means can choose from a huge array of products, both domestic and imported, as well as fresh items (France’s Carrefour, Germany’s Metro , Jennie Lou’s, April Gourmet, etc.). Beijing is definitely a great place to live in China for food shopping options (there are also some nice domestic supermarkets too, including CSF, Wumart, and the Taiwanese chain, BHG). I’ve been enjoying exploring all of the options and the many different and interesting products, often trying new things that sometimes have even been a surprising success with the larger family!

While it’s easy to vilify China vis-a-vis its poor food safety record, I’ll end with a reminder, to myself as well, that we’ve got sketchy stuff going on in the West too. For example, China recently pulled a shipment of IKEA’s almond cakes off the shelves when it was found to contain fecal bacteria. The recent “pink slime” scandal in the U.S. should remind us all that companies everywhere are not immune to the lure of cheaper additives for greater profits (see this article about creepy lies in the food industry that was referenced in the Huffington Post). For me, whether in China or the U.S., it basically boils down the necessity of keeping myself informed, making an effort to know where my meat/fish comes from, trying to buy organic foods, and, as much as possible, staying away from processed foods.

Pam

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