In China, Another Food Scandal Makes Headlines

Jul 17, 2013
Originally published on July 17, 2013 4:05 pm

In China, it seems to be “another week, another food scandal.” Chinese citizens are worn down with news of contaminated food — including toxic milk powder, poisonous rice and fake food.

Unscrupulous restaurants and food stalls have been caught selling everything from fake eggs made of gelatine, to the latest scandal — duck meat passed off as lamb.

So how are the citizens reacting? They’re coming up with their own solutions to deal with the crisis, as the BBC’s Celia Hatton reports from Beijing.

BBC Video: Why are Chinese people using home food safety tests?


  • Celia Hatton, BBC news correspondent based in Beijing. She tweets @celiahatton.
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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. At least 22 children in India are dead after eating a tainted free meal at school yesterday. Doctors suspect a pesticide in the cooking oil may be to blame. Meanwhile, there is another food scandal in China - fake food from eggs made of gelatin to duck meat passed off as lamb. And it's not the first time something like this has happened in China. There was the famous tainted milk scandal that sickened hundreds of thousands of people. So how are Chinese citizens reacting? Here's the BBC's Celia Hatton.


CELIA HATTON: In a tiny apartment in Beijing, a one-year-old boy nicknamed Huhu, plays with his dotting parents. It's a happy scene. Toys are scattered all over the floor. We venture near the family's kitchen, where Huhu's dotting grandmother cooks his meals and you'll learn more about the concerns this family carry for their only child. Every cupboard, every spare shelf is lined with imported baby food. Endless problems with China's locally produced food have bred a deep suspicion of what's sold on Chinese store shelves, explains Huhu's mother, Liang Jinfang.

LIANG JINFANG: (Through translator) The government hasn't taken any measures to deal with the food scandals. There's only one answer: You have to pay to find the best food for your child.

HATTON: Box by box, a year's supply of baby formula has arrived at the apartment, shipped straight from Germany to China.

JINFANG: (Through translator) We spend so much on milk powder - my parents have to help us with our living costs so we can survive.

HATTON: But it's no wonder these parents and millions like them are worried. In 2008, crowds formed outside children's hospitals across China, like this one in Beijing. Six babies died and 300,000 others were sickened after drinking milk formula laced with melamine, an industrial chemical. The food crises continue. Just this year market-goers in China were shocked when more than 900 people were arrested for crimes across the country involving fake meat, including rat illegally substituted for mutton.

So most people living in China come up with their own personal ways to cope with the constant threat of contaminated food. Some, like Huhu's parents, hoard imported goods, while others arm themselves with information. I'm holding my smartphone here, and I'm looking at a popular new application. It's just one of a few that allow users to swap tips on the latest food safety scandals. Here's an alert warning me that a man was arrested in China's central Hunan province after selling bean sprouts that were dyed with industrial bleach.


HATTON: But lingering concerns over contaminated food are driving business at this private laboratory in Beijing's northern suburbs. Workers are busy filling orders at the Zhiyunda Science and Technology Company. Originally researchers here targeted their instant food safety tests to companies and government agencies. But now ordinary consumers are snapping up their wares. OK. So he's taking a little dropper full of milk.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

HATTON: The company's most popular test? Adding one, two. No surprise, it's a three-minute detector that looks for contaminants in baby formula. Oh, wait.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

HATTON: OK. The lab now sells more than 150 different products, explains the company's deputy general manager, Li Jiangang.

LI JIANGANG: (Through translator) Whenever a food safety problem pops up, we produce a matching solution.

HATTON: But on the other side of the city, Huhu's family sits down to lunch. It's hard to imagine a test that would convince these parents to shop locally. Even the rice, the most Chinese of foods their son eats, is imported from Germany.

HOBSON: The BBC's Celia Hatton reporting from Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.