Newspapers in China these days are filled with horror stories of egregious food safety violations, which are prompting Chinese people to be more aware of the food they eat. The issue is also of concern to Americans, who are eating more food imported from China.
Wu Heng, a 25-year-old Chinese university student in Shanghai, became so fed up with what has seemed like a neverending stream of food safety scandals that in June, he started a website that collects and summarizes reports on food safety issues.
Wu says he was spurred into action after reading a report about fake beef - which was basically cheaper pork dressed up with additives to look like more expensive beef. He was shocked and angry to realize that he was among those who had consumed fake beef.
The website has so far documented more than 2,000 food safety cases, culled from the Internet and Chinese media. Wu says the data show the number of food safety violations decreased from 2008 to 2010, but started increasing again this year.
Powdered milk scandal
China's problems with food safety were catapulted to national headlines in 2008, when milk powder tainted with the industrial chemical melamine led to the deaths of six babies and sickened hundreds of thousands of others.
Qiu Baochang, a lawyer with the China Consumers Association, a government-funded organization that was established in late 1984, acknowledges there have been a host of food safety problems. He cites chemicals added to old mantou buns to make them seem fresh, and a scandal involving restaurants that re-used dirty and sometimes toxic cooking oil.
Qiu says the government is paying great attention to the issue and the public tends to exaggerate the problem.
Qiu thinks food safety in China is much better than five years ago, but says many people feel the situation is much worse because of the Internet - which can spread stories quickly. He says the Internet stories are not always factual and make things seem worse than they really are, which, in his words, could create public terror.
Other countries are responding to concerns about the safety of the global food trade with new legislation. Earlier this year, the United States enacted the Food Safety Modernization Act, which requires food importers verify the safety of the food that increasingly comes from overseas suppliers.
“We have had global tripling in the last decade of import entries of food coming into this country, and China has certainly been a big part of that,” explained Michael Taylor, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for foods.
This month, Taylor and his colleagues held meetings in Beijing with their Chinese counterparts on food safety issues. He says the main goal was to explain the Food Safety Modernization Act’s new rules, and seek comment from Chinese government and industry.
“Beginning after the first of next year, we expect substantial comments from the Chinese perspective, on the rule and what the rule should be,” Taylor said.
As U.S. food imports grow, so do the challenges for maintaining food safety.
Murray Lumpkin, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's representative for global issues, says his agency stationed its first employee overseas only three years ago.
“FDA is not like some of the other agencies within the U.S. government that have a long history of placing staff overseas. This is really quite new for us," Lumpkin said. "And we are, fundamentally, a domestic consumer protection agency. What gets us involved outside of the U.S., as you have been hearing, is that so many of the products for which we are responsible in the United States now come from outside the United States.”
One of the largest exporters of food products to the United States, China has indicated it is willing to work with other countries on safety.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei calls food import and export a major part of business cooperation. He says China believes food safety is important to enhancing bilateral cooperation and normal relations.
As an increasing volume of food products move from China to the United States, there are also American ideas about food safety making their way to China. Student Wu Heng says one basic food safety inspiration for him came from one of the first exposes of American food safety problems.
Wu says he was inspired by American writer Upton Sinclair, whose book The Jungle describes the meat packing industry in Chicago more than 100 years ago.
The Chinese student recounts a story in which then U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt was said to be reading The Jungle while he was eating breakfast at the White House. When he read about the book’s description of horrible working conditions and unsanitary food preparations, he is reported to have screamed and thrown his food out the window.
Whether or not the events actually happened this way, the incident is immortalized in the title for Wu’s website: “Throw It Out the Window.”