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Eat, drink and be weary

  • PHOTO BY BRANDON TAYLOR Even fast food chains in China, like this Beijing Subway sandwich shop, have been targeted for improper food safety practices.
    PHOTO BY BRANDON TAYLOR Even fast food chains in China, like this Beijing Subway sandwich shop, have been targeted for improper food safety practices.
Published August 13. 2011 09:02AM

Four. That's the number of times I've had food poisoning since moving to China. I'm not talking about a little bellyache here and there, but stomach infections that induce Exorcist-like projectile vomiting. The kind of sick where Pepto Bismal and Immodium are the equivalent to sticking your finger in hole in a dam about to break brief relief followed by a deluge. On one of those occasions, I was thoroughly convinced that a small "Alien" creature would be bursting from my stomach any second.

My experiences have been that bad pain and a lot of inconvenience not being able to be more than 10 feet from a bathroom but other people here have died.

Economic and political issues aside, food safety is probably one of the biggest issues in China and one that has stolen the spotlight on a number of occasions in recent years.

In 2008, more than 290,000 infants fell ill after drinking melamine-tainted milk powder from Sanlu Group, one of China's largest dairy enterprises. Six of those infants, after developing complications from kidney stones, died.

Recycled cooking oil came to the forefront in 2010 when numerous restaurants were discovered to have been using oil that had been scooped out of sewers or drains. The cooking oil contained things like heavy metals, antibiotics and aflatoxins in layman's terms, cancer causers. Experts say Chinese consume 2 to 3 million tons of this drainage oil each year.

This year, a nasty little thing called clenbuterol was found in pork products in China. The feed additive, known simply as lean meat powder in China, accelerates fat burning and muscle growth in pigs. It also causes stomachaches and heart palpitations in people.

The list of food disasters continues with tales of farmers grinding up birth control pills and feeding them to fish to spur growth, of fake eggs made of a calcium carbonate mix, and of watermelons that eventually exploded because too much chemical-enhancing fertilizers were used.

The coup-de-grace came last month. Early in July, the government began recalling bottled water, from small soda bottles to larger water coolers, because of bacterial contamination. Thirty-one brands were named. I've only even seen three or four brands on my stint around China. The bacterial levels in some were 9,000 times higher than the acceptable limit. To top this fiasco off, some water distributors were selling fake brands. In other words, that bottle of Nestle or Fiji water, or popular Chinese brand Nongfu Spring, you're drinking might actually be another contaminated brand. Or it could be tap water.

Wave after wave of food scandal certainly has made it difficult to eat, drink and be merry in China.

Food scandals here are allowed to proliferate due to a lack of oversight and inefficient regulation. There is no Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A number of departments are responsible for overseeing China's food and beverage industries, but most of the policy and safety standard upholding the regulation part gets lost in the bureaucratic mess of Chinese politics.

Even if such an institution were to be established here, it would be almost impossible to regulate the thousands of restaurants that spring up and disappear in cities across China. Then there's street cart vendors who make those pretzel and hot dog guys in New York City look like food saints.

The bigger problem is that each individual food incident is never really resolved. When scandals break, the government is quick to act, but each scandal ends up looking like a choreographed event. There's a lot of finger pointing; some top level corporate hotshots get the axe, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally; the families of the injured parties are compensated (read, paid off); and the problem is swept under the rug. It's all done relatively quickly so the spotlight and public resentment remains fixated on food corporations and execs and never gets the chance to escalate to the point where the public starts blaming Communist Party officials.

Even so, a large number of middle class Chinese distrust their food as much as they distrust their government. To address the recent food scandals, the government put up Cold War era propaganda posters in restaurants urging cooks, owners and waitresses to fight against unsafe food conditions. They might as well tell the Chinese to stop lighting off fireworks for Chinese New Year, because without government intervention and supervision, general food safety is just not going to happen.

Brandon Taylor is a 2009 graduate of Penn State's College of Communications. Following his graduation, he began an internship at The China Daily English language newspaper in Beijing. He loved the experience so much, he decided to stay and secured a full-time copyediting job at the Beijing Review, an English language news magazine similar to TIME. Prior to his graduation, Taylor was a copy editor for the Daily Collegian at Penn State and worked as a correspondent for the Lehighton Times News and the Bethlehem Press. Read Brandon's blog at He can be reached at

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