(Nancy Huehnergarth is a national food policy activist, journalist, coalition leader and president of Nancy F. Huehnergarth Consulting. Follow her on Twitter. A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Hill.)
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 (325,000-plus 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 leaves her deeply concerned about the prospect of American chicken being processed in China for consumption in the U.S.
To provide consumers with even more information about how a weak Chinese food safety system poses a real threat to Americans, I have compiled a 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 contamination and 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,” or, “Nothing can be done.” This is the traditional Confucian attitude that teaches one to bend like a reed in the wind — never stand against it like a tree.
I do know that almost everyone here believes that government officials have their own private farms to assure that their personal food supply is safe. People also widely believe that the government lies about its results in food testing to avoid panic and protest.
Who staffs China’s food processing facilities?
Chinese food processing plants are staffed by workers with little education — the people who are willing to work for the kind of low wages that make it possible to process U.S. chickens in Chinese plants and export them back to America cost effectively. Unfortunately, these mostly rural workers have limited knowledge of hygiene and sanitation.
In the first few years of my life here, I spent time in different cities and towns, including Shanghai, Shijiazhuang, Qingdao, Qinhuangdao, Shenyang, Harbin, Dalian, Changchun, Yichang, Yidu, Wuhan, Xi’an, Yichun, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Ganzhou. I discovered that the vast majority of people are not yet familiar with the concept of a germ, virus or bacteria, or basic hygiene practices such as hand washing or avoiding cross-contamination of food.
What about large multinational food corporations operating in China? Don’t they have sanitation and 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 such as 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 the problems here.
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 a 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 can 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.
How do you personally deal with rampant food safety issues in China?
I keep an eye on both the official government reports and as much independent media as I am able to access. I am very interested for my own personal health, as well as for the sake of my friends here. Since my roommate (also American) and I started eating only imported food, our health has improved dramatically. In particular, my roommate’s constant skin allergies and rashes have died down. We eat food from China only when out with friends — which we keep to once or twice a month. Most of the time we encourage our friends to come to our home for a meal instead. Whenever we eat out, we can tell. We generally both get headaches and often have digestive problems, and my roommate invariably breaks out in a rash within 24 hours. If we are able to find a restaurant where this does NOT happen, we keep going there until it does.
Is it possible to purchase organic produce in China?
Although “organic” vegetables are available here (little fruit), there are two serious problems with that. The first is that even government spot testing admits that approximately 30 percent of food labeled “organic” does not pass basic tests for pollutants and chemicals. Like most people, if they will admit to as high as 30 percent, I suspect the real number is closer to 60 percent. Greenpeace recently reported that upon asking Chinese organic farmers what “organic” meant, many of them answered: “I grow it by myself.”
Why do you think many farmers in China use unsafe chemicals on the food they grow?
The government limits the profit farmers can make off their goods in order to control inflation. As a result, many farmers have a hard time making ends meet, so they seek ways to improve per acre yields via chemicals. It is well-known (and feared) in the cities that farmers set aside a plot for their own personal use upon which these chemicals are never used. But plots that are growing produce to be sold are highly contaminated to make them profitable. Hence we have issues like last year’s exploding watermelons. An unknown chemical was added to watermelons to make them grow faster and bigger, with the unexpected result that they exploded in the fields.
What do you hear about soil and water contamination in China with regard to the food supply?
The soil and water are both 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. Unfortunately, all pollution numbers are ultimately educated guesses since the government tightly controls all such information.
No one I know drinks tap water. Everyone, including the poor, drinks bottled water. I personally have an Aquasana water filtration system — one for drinking and a separate one for the shower — which renders the water clean enough to bathe in but still not what one would want for drinking. When I first came here, it was common for hotels to put a large thermos of boiled water in each room. Restaurants also served boiled water, and many people drank tap water that had been boiled. This is no longer the case.
Can you believe there is fake bottled water? I switched to water filtration because government testing showed that 60 percent of bottled water was “fake,” e.g., bottles had been simply refilled with tap water and sold.
Are there any big food scandals going on right now in China?
Now we’re struggling with the issue of fake eggs. They are nearly impossible to distinguish before buying and far cheaper to make than real eggs are to lay. Fake honey is also a problem. Testing revealed that 60 percent of the honey sold in stores is not honey at all, merely colored glucose water. Of course, fake honey from China has been found in France and the U.S. as well.
Based on your personal experiences and research, 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.