Category Archives: Food

Beijing’s Dog Days Have Just Begun

For a city that is bursting at the seams with people, the huge majority of whom live in apartment complexes, one might expect there to be few pets roaming Beijing’s streets of an evening. In fact, the capital’s dog population is exploding along with its middle class – the number of pet dogs in Beijing increased from 100,000 to 1.5 million between 2001 and 2007. Likewise, pet stores have popped up all over town, under-regulated and often overstuffed with animals.

Inequalities amongst Beijing’s dogs seem to mirror those amongst its human citizens. On any given day, I will see pampered puppies padding around in tiny booties, coats artistically trimmed, sporting designer dog clothes and sparkling canine bling. On the same street, I rarely escape the sight of a dog or pair of dogs clearly in poor health, with running sores and infections, untrimmed matted hair and a myriad of other afflictions. Their owners generally seem oblivious to the ailments of such dogs and many must suffer terribly from their own poor hygiene. Few dogs are fully vaccinated in China.

Aversions to spaying and neutering mean that the couple of million dogs in the city are constantly producing more dogs, usually in the course of a morning walk (in what can’t but be an equally intimate encounter for the respective dog owners as they idly look on).

Add these factors to the ongoing and evidently still profitable trade in dog meat (restaurants were banned from selling ‘gourou’ in 2008 for the Olympics but the specialist restaurant just down the road from my place demonstrates the short-term nature of that particular edict), and the means by which that trade is carried out (some say that beating a dog to death with a club, instead of, say, slitting its throat, enhances the flavour of the meat), and you get a dangerous environment for every down-at-heel mutt in town. The unwanted offspring, the grown dogs turned out onto the streets on which they were purchased for a handful of spare change as a wet-nosed pup in a back-alley pet market, would be advised to keep well out of sight.

A more caring future is undoubtedly within reach. On 15 April, a Chinese driver passed a truck on the highway packed with over 500 dogs heading for the slaughterhouse. He stopped at the next toll station and blockaded the truck’s path. After hastily sending out a plea for help on micro-blogging site, Sina Weibo, he was quickly joined by 200 like-minded citizens. After a 15-hour standoff, the driver agreed to release the dogs into the care of the group for around US$17,000. Many of the dogs were treated for dehydration and viral infection and suitable homes are now being sought.

As these values become more widespread in China, education campaigns take hold, and the regulatory environment gradually moves toward serious legal ramifications for purveyors of animal cruelty, change will come. I would, however, hold out equally serious concerns for other animals. Dogs are, after all, “man’s best friend”. What of China’s less cuddly creatures?

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Waiter, There’s a Condom in my Soup

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
Source: Shanghai
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
Company: Numerous
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
Source: Nationwide
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
Company: Unknown
Illegal Additives: Isocarbophos (pesticide)
Repercussions: Unknown
Human Toll:Unknown

Photo: AFP/GETTY

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.

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Filed under China, Food