Chinese food safety is worse than you think

In April, I began an email correspondence with an American I’ll call Susan (she prefers to remain anonymous), who has lived in China for 15 years while working in publishing. She currently resides in Beijing and also lived in a small town in Hubei province.

Susan came across our Change.org petition (322,000+ signatures) asking Congress to “Keep Chinese Chicken Out of Our Schools and Supermarkets” and reached out to me. While she loves China and its people, Susan’s first-hand knowledge of China’s poor food safety practices leave her deeply concerned about the prospect of American chicken being processed in China for consumption in the U.S.

Today in Washington, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China is holding a hearing entitled “Pet Treats and Processed Chicken from China: Concerns for American Consumers and Pets.” To provide the Commission with even more information about how a weak Chinese food safety system poses a real threat to Americans, I have compiled a brief Q&A excerpt from my often-startling correspondence with Susan.

Why do you think China suffers from such spectacular food safety problems?

Food safety has always been an issue (in China), due to lack of knowledge about hygiene standards. Even in Beijing I can count on contracting food poisoning at least once a year, despite all my precautions. The problem is, buying anything here that is processed becomes a roll of the dice.

Most Chinese believe the food safety system is thoroughly corrupt. Although there are protests, in general people say "mei ban fa." Nothing can be done. This is the traditional Confucist attitude that teaches one to bend like a reed in the wind–never stand against it like a tree.

What about large multinational food corporations operating in China? Aren’t their food safety standards equivalent to those in the United States?

I don’t think so. Shuanghui International, China’s biggest meat products company (which purchased Smithfield Foods last year for $4.7 billion), has been plagued by constant reports here in this country of meat infested with maggots, customers succumbing to food poisoning and random testing that shows illegal levels of bacteria and illegal additives like clenbuterol in their meat. Negative Chinese articles about Shuanghui were pulled off the web in advance of the Smithfield purchase, but you can still read about them at edition.cnn.com/2013/05/31/business/china-food-tainted-shuanghui-maggots/.”

Are Chinese citizens fully aware of food safety problems in their country? How do they deal with them?

The residents of Beijing are well aware of (food safety) problems. I can think of four ways in particular that their concern has become evident in recent years.

The first is the proliferation and patronage of foreign import food stores. When I first came to Mainland China there was one such store in Beijing, little more than hole in the wall, which catered entirely to the foreign population. Today that original shop has eight locations in the city. There are now four competing chains as well, and most have numerous full-sized grocery stores. Even as recently as five years ago, the vast majority of patrons were still foreigners. However today, these stores are filled with Chinese patrons, even though the product markup can often be 100 percent or more above what those items would cost back home.

The second change has been in behavior when eating out. Anyone who can afford it avoids street food and cheaper restaurants, which are notorious for their poor quality. Food consequently often takes up to 50 percent of the average person's monthly budget. Food poisoning is extremely common and the rates of cancer in China are rising. I know personally three people under the age of 40 with liver or kidney failure. Gastrointestinal cancer is one of the most common cancers in China. People largely view this as unavoidable and a consequence of dirty food.

The third piece of evidence is that Hong Kong and other countries are restricting the amount of baby formula Chinese citizens purchase or carry out of the country. These laws were necessary because the Chinese were going abroad in droves and buying up all the baby formula.

The final change has been the proliferation of balcony gardens. Anyone who has room in Beijing tries to turn their apartment balcony into a small garden since vegetables are among the foods most likely to make one ill.

What do you hear about soil and water contamination in China?

The soil and water are both are widely and terribly contaminated. The soil study (the government) finished in 2010 had been locked away as a state secret until recently, when they admitted that 20 percent of the nation's farmland is contaminated -- a figure that most who live here would suspect to be low, as well as out-of-date. As to the water, I’ve read that the groundwater of 90 percent of our cities is contaminated to some degree while 64 percent of the groundwater in our cities is severely polluted.

Based on your experiences, do you think it’s safe to process American raised chickens in China?

I was horrified to learn that any food from America might come here to be processed. In my opinion, it will certainly return contaminated–even if nothing is added to it. There is no guarantee that the food will be kept at the proper temperature here, or that anyone involved will ensure the sanitation standards needed.

What’s a good resource to learn about Chinese food safety scandals?

The website "Throw it Out the Window" is a Chinese student’s compilation of all food scandal reports and articles that come out here every month. Running it through Google translate will help you keep up with our food safety issues.

Huehnergarth is a national food policy activist, journalist, coalition leader and president of Nancy F. Huehnergarth Consulting. Follow her on Twitter.

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