Features

Food fright

China | A Chinese dissident uncovers a plateful of horrors

Issue: "Tough love," Aug. 18, 2007

Tainted, all of them: Big Bird, Elmo, Dora the Explorer, even Spongebob Squarepants. This month, the beloved characters became part of a 1.5-million worldwide recall of toys coated in lead paint and manufactured in China. Still, the recalls-of poisoned pet food or toothpaste in Panama-seem mild to what Chinese have to eat at home, and often unwittingly.

The world's wary eye on China's goods is drawing fresh attention to Zhou Qing, a Chinese dissident whose 2004 exposé of the local food industry now seems prescient. Zhou spent more than three years interviewing food manufacturers, farmers, tradesmen, and others, and compiling available articles and media reports. Along the way, he found manifold horrors: pickled vegetables preserved with insecticide, noodles contaminated with urine and saliva, restaurant meals laced with opiates.

In many of Zhou's foul food cases, the perpetrators breached even China's food-safety standards. Still the abuses continue, causing food poisoning and other illnesses, and possible cancer down the line from the use of toxic chemicals.

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The practices continue, Zhou told WORLD, because easily bribed food-safety officials waive licenses and give free passes to manufacturers. "So-called 'collective responsibility' means [no one is] responsible for anything," he said.

Zhou ironically named his study "What Kind of God?"-a twist on a Chinese proverb that says, "Food is the People's Heaven," or God. Traditionally, an emperor was only as good as his ability to feed his people. The Chinese now eat well and often, but it may be killing them.

In one case, Zhou heard rumors about pickled vegetables from Sichuan Province, which is famous for the popular snack. Friends said local manufacturers were pickling the vegetables in the insecticide DDVP, which can cause headaches, vomiting, muscle cramps, seizures, and in severe cases unconsciousness. Reportedly, local manufacturers said, "We don't eat any of these pickles in Sichuan, we sell them to people from other provinces."

When Zhou investigated a factory, he found two shocking abuses: First, workers were using industrial salt from bags labeled "Not for Human Consumption." When he returned the next day, he noticed insects crawling around the vats of pickles. To combat them, Zhou wrote, workers sprayed the pickles with insecticide every two or three days until they left for sale. Even the manager could not identify the insecticide, so Zhou sent it off for testing. Results: "99 percent strength DDVP." Elsewhere, farmers use banned pesticides on their vegetables, sometimes unaware of their toxicity.

Another example: Shanxi Province's noodle-snack, called "Cold Skin," has become popular around the country. But some noodles sold in Beijing had an ignominious past: They came from an illegal manufacturer whose workers, when tired, kneaded the dough with their feet or returned from the toilet without washing their hands. A few times, angry at docked pay or a severe boss, some urinated into the dough. One worker spit into a pot of boiling noodles.

In June 2004, authorities cracked down on some 200 Guizhou Province restaurants that added opiates to their fish soups and sauces as a way to get their customers hooked on their menu. Zhou's examples are a literary scatter graph, but the chilling abuses happen often enough to pose a national problem.

Interestingly, Zhou was able to cull some of his information from intrepid reporting done by China's state television channel and others, showing that Beijing allowed its journalists to expose several abuses. The channel has a Sunday "Weekly Quality Report" that has often tackled food safety, drawing many viewers.

Zhou worries that they may not always have such liberty in a country where the government strictly controls information. Zhou, 42, spent almost three years in prison for demonstrating at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He said he has not been harassed about his writings on food safety-authorities at first even praised the work, which won a prestigious international journalism award, the Lettre Ulysses.

Still, a journalist looking for the food-safety essay in bookstores told him they had not carried anything by him for about three months. Zhou keeps alert for his safety, while he says China is beginning to clean up its food industry. What he worries about is how anyone will monitor it.

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