So, I’m a vegetarian. And this is my first time coming to China as a vegetarian (I was still putting away large quantities of meat when I was last here in 2008). I had thought that it might be tricky and it certainly does involve a fair bit of navigation around sprinklings of surprise mince and a whole lot of egg-eating.
(I had a unique experience just days ago where I ordered a serving of ‘cabbage buns’ (báicài bāozi 白菜包子) only to find that the second of four buns was in fact full of minced pork. Meat roulette ensued.)
However, any wavering in my convictions is met with a convenient little reality check every time I read yet another story on what seem to be all too common food scandals and abuses of illegal toxic additives. Unfortunately, the scale and severity of some of these scandals are just about enough to put one off eating anything in any Chinese restaurant ever again.
For those that can’t remember the last time they genuinely worried about the quality and safety of what they were eating when they sat down in a restaurant, here’s a little refresher on what’s gone down in China in 2011 alone:
Affected Food: Steamed buns
Company: Shanghai Shenglu Food Co.
Illegal Additives: Sodium cyclamate (sweetener), potassium sorbate (preservative)
Other Offences: Relabelling old buns, using yellow dye to create ‘corn buns’
Repercussions: 5 managers arrested, products recalled
Human Toll: Unknown
Affected Food: Pork products
Source: Jiyuan, Henan
Company: Jiyuan Shuanghui Food Co.
Illegal Additives: Clenbuterol (growth drug)
Repercussions: 30+ provincial officials suspended, sacked or arrested, company managers detained, products recalled
Animal Toll: At least 200 pigs needlessly slaughtered and buried
Human Toll: Unknown
Affected Food: Milk products
Source: Gansu, Qinghai
Illegal Additives: Melamine, cyanuric acid (increase protein content in tandem)
Repercussions: 96 new arrests, 426 dairy farm temporary closures
Human Toll: <10 infant deaths since 2008, >300,000 infants hospitalised since 2008
Affected Food: Cooking oil
Company: Underground network
Illegal Additives: None
Other Offences: Waste oil fished out of sewerage systems, filtered, divided and re-sold to restaurants for consumption, containing aflatoxin (carcinogen 100 times more toxic than white arsenic)
Repercussions: General ‘crackdown’, no details yet
Human Toll: Unknown, 1 in 10 restaurant meals contaminated
Affected Food: Green beans
Source: Sanya, Hainan
Illegal Additives: Isocarbophos (pesticide)
These are just some of the scandals that have already shattered consumer confidence in China this year. Of particular noteworthiness is the so-called swill-oil scandal, brought to national attention by China Youth Daily and since widely debated, and of particular gag-inducing foulness is this photo that spread rapidly on the internet (don’t click if the title of this post offends you).
One wonders just how many lives will be irreversibly affected before effective government regulation, consumer outrage, and a critical press combine to limit the damage.