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Food Safety and Quality in China

Is this food safe? Is this food what it appears to be? What else is in this milk that I don’t know about? Food safety in China is a game of Russian Roulette, you never know when you’re going to get the bullet, when you’re going to eat food laced with toxic ingredients or chemicals.

China food safety
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“In the supermarket it is very difficult for us, we are always thinking about what bad things could be in the food,” Da Xie spoke her concerns about the safety of her country’s food supply. She is not alone: food quality is a topic that seems to be resting in the back of everyone’s mind who lives in China, and these fears are not unfounded:

In 2003, various producers of Jinhua ham were found to have soaked their product in vats of pesticide to prevent spoilage in order to sell it through the winter months.

In Anhui province, fake milk powder was put on the market that killed at least 13 babies and caused the heads of many others to swell while their bodies shrank from malnutrition.

In Sichuan, producers of pickled vegetables were found to have added pesticides to the mix prior to shipping.

In 2004, various soy sauce manufacturers were caught using human hair collected from salons, barber shops, and hospitals in their proprietary blends.

160 drug manufacturers and retailers across China had their licenses revoked in a scandal involving the addition of diglycol, a disinfectant, in the antibiotic Armillarisni A, which caused the death of 10 people in May of 2006.

Throughout the country, Turbot fish were found to be packed full of antibiotics as well as the anti-fungal agent, malachite green, which is known to be carcinogenic when consumed by humans.

In 2006, Greenpeace tested vegetables in Hong Kong supermarkets and found that 30% had pesticide residues on them that exceeded safe levels, and some even contained traces of DDT and other banned chemicals.

In 2007, cat and dog food which included Chinese made wheat gluten contaminated with melamine, a cheap plastic-based substance that falsely registers as protein in nutritional testing, killed upwards of a couple thousand pets in the United States.

A year later, melamine was added to baby formulas across China, which killed at least six babies and made nearly 300,000 others sick. This widespread  incident became known as the 2008 Chinese Milk Scandal.

In Guangdong province, manufacturers of stinky tofu were found to have added “sewage, slop, and Iron(II) sulfate” to speed up the fermentation process and improve the appearance of their product.

In studies conducted in 2007 and 2008, Nanjing Agricultural University found that up to 10% of China’s rice supply is tainted with heavy metals, much of which were deposited into the soil by mining operations.

In 2008, 500 people in Japan became ill after eating dumplings tainted with three different insectacides which were imported from China.

Whole Foods, a US based health-food chain, found that the reputedly organic ginger that they had imported from China actually contained pesticides in 2008.

Also in 2008, melamine was found in some egg products across the country.

In 2009, it was found that some tapioca pearls in China were contaminated with polymers in order to make them look better.

Also in 2009, in order to make steamed buns more chewy some manufacturers added the pesticide Dichlorvos.

In that same year, in an effort to sell duck as lamb, a string of restaurants in Qingdao were caught marinating it with sheep and goat urine.

In Wuhan, Chinese food safety inspectors found that some manufacturers were mixing together formaldehyde, corn starch, industrial grade salt, and artificial food colouring and selling it as blood pudding, a popular Chinese desert.

In May of 2011, fields of exploding watermelons across Jiangsu province may have been caused by the use of forchlorfenuron, an agricultural chemical.

Over the past few years, the eating of pork from pigs treated with Clenbuterol, a pharmaceutical decongestant nicknamed by farmers “lean meat powder” for it’s ability to add muscle and strip fat off of livestock, resulted in thousands of people getting food poisoning in more than 18 outbreaks across China.

This is all in addition to the regular scares of carcinogenic nitrate laced vegetables, various toxins added to bulk up watered down milk, and banned preservatives and food coloring that continue to be used.

Needless to say, China, perhaps more than any other country in the world, is struggling with food quality and safety in the globalization era. The Chinese business model of cutting corners and using low cost materials in order to produce products faster and cheaper — the very strategy which gave the country its name as a global manufacturing giant — has unfortunately also been applied to food production. As is evident above, the results have been horrendous.

Living with contaminated food

Chinese grapesLike breathing the air, eating potentially contaminated food is a part of living in China. Everybody breaths, everybody eats, and there is nothing we can do about that. There have been dozens and dozens of food safety scares across the Middle Kingdom over the past decade, and many have died or become seriously ill from consuming adulterated foods, but this does not mean that people are keeling over dead in the streets on a regular basis. I have yet to know anyone in China who has gotten really sick from consuming compromised food, and if I had not done the research, talked with Chinese people, and investigated this issue for myself I may have been able to remain happily ignorant of these food safety breaches. On the surface, everything appears normal here: the supermarkets are full of people, and everything from pork to dairy products are still being sold and purchased. There is no other option.

“Sometimes I bring home a fish that I bought in the market and my husband will say that it may not be good, that it may have been given chemicals to make it grow bigger,” my friend Da Xie continued. “We eat meat everyday but not that much because we don’t know what is in it.”

This sentiment reverberates as though sent through an echo chamber across the country. It’s no secret that the food on the shelves and coolers of the supermarket may not be exactly as it seems.

“Things have simply gotten to the point that it’s impossible to feel confident that what you’re eating is healthy, or even real, unless you’re on a farm,” wrote C. Custer in his declaration on why he’s decided to leave China. “Not that the food anywhere is entirely safe, of course — certainly it isn’t in the US — but there are plenty of places safer than here. And again, thinking about kids and a family, why choose to put down roots in a country where milk power, in one form or another, seems to make kids sick in a new way every year?”

On top of not knowing what has been sprayed onto or laced into foods, it is also difficult to really know if you are eating the type of food you think you are. The Chinese are world renown for being masters at creating imitation products, but imitation beef was a new thing for me. By taking pork and cooking it for 90 minutes with a special additive, the Chinese have found a way to give it the appearance and taste of beef. According to the Global Times, “A 500-gram bottle of the beef extract sells for 20 yuan ($3) and is enough to flavor about 25 kilograms of pork. Pork is about half the price of beef, which means potential savings of over 1,000 yuan per 25 kilograms of meat if the substance is used.”

Those who can, try to get as much of their food as possible from the gardens and farms of their family members in the countryside so that they can be sure of what they are eating. “I go to my parents’ house, and they give me the food they grow,” Da Xie explained. “The vegetables and the meat that comes from there really tastes different than what we buy in the supermarkets in the cities.”

From doing a quick survey, it is obvious to me that the common people of China are scared shit-less of their food supply. They know that it is being laced with potential harmful chemicals, sprayed with dangerous pesticides, and supplemented with non-foods and toxic ingredients that are simply not human soluble. There have been far too many food quality scandals in China for people here to believe otherwise. Each trip to the grocery store is one earmarked with fear and paranoia:

Is this food I’m buying safe?

Nobody knows.

I know that I’m poisoning myself and my family here in China. But I also know that we’re being poisoned whenever we are in the world — not even food quality in the USA is anything to brag about. We live in a world that uses pesticides, where corporate kickbacks and backroom handshakes usurp public policy, where we are poisoned little by little each day they live in this era where chemicals are a part of our daily lives. This is truly a global issue, but, like most things here, lack of food safety is taken to the extreme. No country on the planet that I know of has had as many food safety scares as China, in no country that I’ve ever been in are the people as skeptical and fearful of the quality of their food supply, I don’t know of anywhere else where food is laced with such toxic substances on such a large scale.

To add to the frustration, the media in China is always under the thumb of the central government. On sensitive issues, journalists are told to only publish the state’s official position, so the people — who tend to be very skeptical of the information their government feeds them — often feel as if they don’t really know what is going on in the country. This adds yet another layer of powerlessness over the issue of food safety: there is often nowhere to turn for trustworthy information.

The Chinese government’s guidelines for journalists and bloggers reporting on food safety issues:China journalists instructions for reporting on food safety

Why is food quality in China so poor?

China lacks a single government body in charge of food safety; China has no equivalent of the US’s Food and Drug Administration. Instead, China has 10 departments and ministries whose job it is to monitor food safety, but the lines between these governing bodies as far as the division of duties is incredibly blurred, complicated, and unrealistic. In point, many food hazards fall through the cracks of this over-bloated bureaucracy and companies that use harmful chemicals in food production continue to operate. While these companies poison China’s food supply, the government is tangled in a complex web of inter-agency finger pointing — or they stand downstream in the profit flow.

China’s food regulations are complex, its monitoring system can be unresponsive, and the government departments that oversee and enforce policies have overlapping and often ambiguous duties. There are around ten national government departments that share the responsibility to ensure food safety. There are also numerous provincial and local agencies that monitor local food production and sales. –Food Safety in China Wikipedia

The Chinese government claims to be doing more to combat potential harmful food adulterations, but so far the thousands of arrests, hundreds of long-term imprisonments, and a handful of executions have yet to stem the problem. There is a lot of money to be made from displacing quality food ingredients with cheap industrial stand-ins, from using banned pesticides, from finding ways to make perishable foods last a little longer, and from treating livestock with all manner of drugs. The pursuit of profit is often stronger than the threat of punishment, and China has yet to put the cap on this very dirty business.

As Da Xie put it:

“The government is useless. They always say that they serve the people, but they don’t. They don’t care about what is important to us in our daily lives. We don’t know what to do.”

Food quality in China is a global issue

Almost regardless of where you live in the world there is a good chance that you consume food and ingredients that were produced in China regularly. In this world of inter-connected economies, the food supply is global. What is made and grown in China is shipped throughout the world. If you buy it in a package or a box there is no telling where the ingredients originally came from: processed food is globalization in motion, eating it is to get a taste of the world, literally. If Chinese food producers so clearly don’t have any qualms against poisoning their own people, why should they care about shipping toxic products to foreigners?

From a WSJ article on the safety of Chinese food exports:

Over the years, foreign governments have also found and rejected Chinese exports of honey containing the antibiotic chloramphenicol, crushed peppers with pesticides and seafood contaminated with veterinary drugs, to name only a few examples . . .

The FDA has the power to stop shipments at the border and collect samples and test for certain contaminants that may be in violation of U.S. regulations. Last month, it refused 215 shipments from mainland China for various reasons. A shipment of dried red dates from Chongqing was considered filthy, frozen swordfish from Shandong contained a poisonous substance and ginseng from Changsha had unsafe pesticides.

But the food shipments that get tested are the exception, not the rule. “The volume of food imports from overseas is approaching 10 million per year, and the number that FDA inspectors physically examine is in the single digit thousands — making it virtually certain that any given food shipment will enter the United States with no FDA inspection,” William Hubbard, a retired associate commissioner of the FDA, said in Senate testimony in July 2006.


Chinese foodIt’s a game of chance when eating food in China —  when eating food anywhere in this era of runaway global economics. Apples still look like apples, pork appears to be pork, beef seems to be beef, but what is this food really? What else is laced into it, sprayed onto, added with this food that we don’t know about? What could happen to me and my family if we drink the milk, eat the meat, consume the vegetables here in China for an extended amount of time? What if we find ourselves victims of the next outbreak of compromised food safety? What if? What if?

This unknowing, this lack of trust for the government agencies employed with ensuring food safety has created a psychosis of paranoia throughout China. It is this game of chance that creates a feeling of powerlessness each time we lift a chopstick full of food up to our mouths.

“Is this food really food?” is a question that should never need to be asked. But it is, along with a host of other questions about food safety in China. Nobody knows when and where the next food safety glitch is going to occur; nobody knows what food is going to be the next to harm the people who eat it. Grocery shopping in this country feels like a game of Russian roulette, the line here between food, non-food, and poison is perilously blurred.

More sources

Food safety issues in China Wikipedia

Filed under: Articles, Changing China, China, Danger, Food

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

8 comments… add one

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  • david August 22, 2012, 1:50 am

    Interresting… And scary!
    Makes me want to go check where that soy sauce in my fridge is coming from..

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    • Wade Shepard August 22, 2012, 5:00 am

      Haha, for sure. But sometimes I think it’s better to remain a little ignorant of this stuff 🙂 Too late for me now.

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  • Jack August 22, 2012, 1:58 am

    This is a subject that I’ve given a lot of thought about since coming to live in China. The one positive about all of this is that Chinese people are aware of the problem and they not only want quality but are demanding it. In other countries like the Philippines, Thailand and even the US, people are blissfully unaware that there is anything wrong with the food they eat. Any food problem is quickly brought to attention in China in the media, while you never hear reports in the US. I suspect some of the same things happen in the US but they are never caught because the people can’t be bothered to care.

    I buy my beef from a butcher and watch him cut off a hunk of beef and weigh it for me. I buy a live chicken and have it butchered for me. I buy my fresh fruits and vegetables from the market, and sure they might be tainted to some degree, I know that if I was in the US, I’d be consuming food(junk food) that was more unhealthy for me.

    Preparing your own food is the best way to ensure quality.

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    • Wade Shepard August 22, 2012, 5:06 am

      “The one positive about all of this is that Chinese people are aware of the problem and they not only want quality but are demanding it.”

      Definitely. When so many consumers are demanding something it is almost against the ruling principles of capitalism not to give it to them eventually. I’m actually surprised that some “pure foods” type of chain supermarket has not started up or moved in here yet. There is certainly a market for it. Though, at the same time, people here seem so skeptical of food quality and what they are told is “safe” to consume that it may be difficult to convince anyone that even clean food is really as such.

      You have it right on: try to go to the source as much as possible.

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  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell August 22, 2012, 5:03 am

    Fore sure, I also wonder what hell I’m ingesting here in China … hopefully I’m countering the worse toxins with my excessive intake of alcohol – also made in China … I’m doomed 😉 (Maybe I should retreat back to New Zealand, to eat?)

    the candy trail … a nomad across the planet – til Chinese toxins get me …

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    • Wade Shepard August 22, 2012, 8:03 am

      Man, retreat to New Zealand? No way, with all of these preservatives and pesticides we’re ingesting we should be able to live forever and never get bitten by mosquitoes again 🙂

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  • Callie August 25, 2012, 5:56 pm

    This is horrifying! It really is too bad that we have to worry about it in the first place…but I agree with Jack above, no matter where we are, we should be preparing more of our own food and paying attention to where it comes from.

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    • Wade Shepard August 25, 2012, 9:09 pm

      Right on! It’s really appalling how intentionally contaminated with chemicals the world’s food supply has become. For sure, preparing your own food is the best way, but a major problem in China is that the soil itself is contaminated with heavy metals, arsenic, and other stuff that you don’t want to consume. Sometimes it seems that you just can’t win here. Thanks for the comment.

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