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    How to Break China’s Chain of Contamination

    With even established businesses caught up in tainted food scandals, how do we make sure we can trust what we eat?

    Today, many people in the food business refuse to eat their own product. They sell their products to others and eat elsewhere, which results in a victory for no one. The vicious cycle of buying and consuming contaminated food products is only too common an occurrence in modern China. In fact, this chain of tainted food, extending from the farm to the dinner table, has been operating since my childhood.

    When I was 8 years old, I went to stay at my aunt’s house in the countryside. We discovered that worms had infested the family granary. My uncle sprayed heavy doses of DDV, a highly poisonous pesticide, to remove the larvae while drying the grain in the sun. “Is it still safe to eat now that you’ve put so much pesticide on the grain?” I asked. My uncle told me not to worry; he would sell the whole batch of grain to the state once it was dry and bug-free.

    My aunt and uncle worked the land. Once they factored in agricultural tax, farming costs, and their own daily provisions, the previous year’s profits were almost completely spent. Raising four daughters and funding their education, my aunt and uncle were under tremendous pressure to turn a profit. In these circumstances, how could they possibly bear to throw away the grain they had toiled so hard for, even if it was contaminated?

    I know the majority of China’s farmers to be good and honest people. But sometimes, personal circumstance forces them to bring contaminated food into the market. Others harm themselves and others due to a lack of awareness about food safety. Once, the woman next door applied pesticide to her little vegetable farm in the morning without telling her husband. When her husband ate tainted cabbage for lunch, he nearly died. 

    Many farmers add large amounts of chemical fertilizer and pesticide to crops — the food they will eat and sell. The disastrous consequences of these practices are now emerging. In recent years, cancer and other major diseases, which rarely affected the rural population before, have risen rapidly.

    Ignorance is the main reason farmers grow, consume, and sell tainted food. In years past, promotions convinced them that pesticides and chemical fertilizers would naturally dissipate harmlessly after a certain period of time — something we now know to be false. 

    Another reason is the cost of human labor. If a tract of land is not treated with pesticides or fertilizers, it must be weeded by hand and is susceptible to blight and pests. Output is reduced by high labor costs. In the end, crops are sold at the same price, whether they are organic or carry pesticide and fertilizer residue. This is simply not a viable way to make a living for poor farmers. 

    The deterioration of arable land deals the final blow. Even if today’s farmers become aware of the health hazards that pesticides and fertilizers pose, many areas cannot support the growth of green, organic crops as a result of years of soil and water pollution. In these cases, farmers can only continue to grow crops under treatment of large amounts of artificial chemicals.

    Does this mean that there is nothing consumers can do? Allow me to give a few quick tips from my experience in the organic food industry that might help you to break free from the tainted food chain.

    Typically, the grandparents purchase and cook food for the household. Children of the early 1950s and early to mid-1960s baby booms have seen hardship, and many experienced times of starvation. When grocery shopping, they value a good bargain above health concerns. Many malicious food producers and vegetable hawkers have latched onto this consumer mindset and become reckless in their use of pesticides and fertilizers, polishing or waxing their goods to make them look more attractive and therefore seem like a better deal.

    My first piece of advice is that if food that looks too good to be true, it probably is. Stroll through a vegetable market, and you will find mushrooms as white as snow — they have been bleached. Seaweed glistens emerald green — chemicals added. Silver ear fungus, goji berries, and dried hot peppers might look glossy and appetizing — they’ve likely been fumigated with sulfur. Rice may appear incomparably lustrous — treated with industrial wax and mineral oil. 

    By the same token, oversized food is likely tainted. Fruits and vegetables larger than usual contain growth hormones. Larger, whiter bean sprouts have been soaked in chemicals. Jellyfish goes pleasantly plump after soaking in formaldehyde. Harsh-smelling foods may be tainted, too. Merchants add formaldehyde or hydrogen peroxide to preservatives for sea cucumbers, beef and pork tendon, and tripe.

    My second suggestion is to avoid looking for a bargain when it comes to eating, and never filter your food choices by price. Choose products from popular brands, like Lao Gan Ma hot sauce or Er Guo Tou liquor, as safety inspections of these brands are more rigorous. Sometimes, however — as a result of skyrocketing demand, shortage of ingredients, shareholder pressure, or market competition — even major companies will resort to deception in the ingredients they use and will allow tainted ingredients into their supply chains. In these cases, minor food brands still owned and operated by their original founders tend to be more trustworthy, as the personal reputation of the boss is still reflected in the quality of the product.

    Food safety in China is plagued by weak supervision and freewheeling market players. Short-term remedies lie in educating food producers to be conscientious and law-abiding, but this also requires the public to exercise discretion. Do not trade food safety for a bargain on your grocery list. Allow farmers to profit a bit, and leave a margin for good and honest merchants, so they can work out of poverty and ultimately break the vicious cycle of tainted food in China. 

    (Header image: A chef uncovers a dish at a restaurant in Shanghai, May 29, 2012. Zhang Dong/Sixth Tone)