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Food safety is top item on the menu

China Daily | Updated: 2012-06-19 12:53

Temptation. It wasn't a chunky wedge of rich, dark chocolate cake. Or a juicy, marbled slab of medium rare Wagyu tenderloin or even a deep fried onion blossom fat-bomb.

Floating inside the thick glass jar were small cubes of fermented tofu. My fork speared a square and dropped it into the bowl of rice porridge. A swirl of red-flecked slime rose to the surface. Bits of black gelatinous preserved eggs popped up as I stirred and the distinctive scent of sulfur and ammonia wafted up. I knew I was taking a risk eating it - was this the menu for a proverbial "last meal" or the ingredients that would make it so?

Food safety is top item on the menu

A recent poll showed 73 percent of respondents felt food safety in China was suspect. A further 27 percent viewed it as extremely unsafe. The majority of those surveyed said they believed the danger comes mainly during the unregulated production and processing of domestic foods.

I came upon such a "factory" once. While walking through a maze of hutong, I saw a small group of people around a long table. It seemed they were at an afternoon social. There was boisterous chatter, a haze of cigarette smoke hung above their heads, empty beer bottles littered the dusty ground and when I got closer I could see they were picking little black bits of dried fruit out of a cracked straw basket and wrapping them with their bare hands. Their dirty, bare hands.

Seeing that I was a foreigner, they generously gave me a couple of pieces to take with me. I looked at the paper wrapper and recognized it as one of the more popular brands of preserved plums - that was the moment I bid dried fruit adieu.

I admit I'm not usually concerned with the back-story of the things I eat. The chances are that a car, bus or scooter will send me to hospital way before the accumulated nitrate levels will. Even so, wary of the extra hormones and hot flashes my family was getting from the nightly servings of chicken, we started to raise our own hens for meat and eggs.

Lessons learned? Never name an animal you want to end up in the frying pan and DIY eggs cost 50 times as much as store bought.

Eating healthy in China doesn't mean a balanced diet of the four food groups, as much as avoiding foods with carcinogenic properties: pork with clenbuterol, milk with melamine, century eggs and mushroom soy sauce with industrial salt, gutter oil, expired foods re-packaged, and now Shandong apples coated with toxic pesticides.

The problem is, these and other yet-to-be discovered tainted foods don't come with warning labels. We often find out after the fact, like in the case of those purr-fectly cheap "lamb" kebabs on sidewalk grills - that what appears to be a bargain is often too good to be true.

But what can the average Zhou do? Ma cannot live on bread alone. Food is the social fabric Chinese culture is woven around. These are the original foodies, where "Hello!" is replaced by "Have you eaten?" Food is more than mere substance here, it tells stories, gives blessings and cements relationships.

Unlike Americans, a communal 5 minute break to gobble down Power Bars may be seen as championing a hard work ethic, but in China a 10-course banquet gives one the opportunity to see if the guy sitting by the side should be viewed as friend or foe.

Will the fear of toxic food change the way we eat and shop? Are factory processed Power Bars the fuel of the future? One thing's for sure, if you're raising a chicken for the dinner table, forget about names like Buddy, Fluffy or Scooter. It'll look more delicious when it scurries over upon hearing its name - Gongbao Jiding.

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