No, I’m not being self-absorbed, and it’s not as if loads of locals around me are succumbing to nasty, mysterious illnesses (anyway the local tabloids always tone down the numbers). Nevertheless, of late in conversations with Hangzhouers I’ve noticed three questions coming up again and again in a tone verging on alarm.
-What are we eating?
-What are we drinking?
-and…. What the hell are we breathing?
-and I’ll toss in another issue…. How can one of the two peaches I bought in the local fruit shop last Sunday turn from unripe into a liquefied mush within 36 hours of purchase? That toxic peach dissolved right before my eyes!
[Anecdote: A couple of weeks ago having enjoyed a second Kelloggs Nutri-Grain bar (courtesy of a Red-Cross parcel from my mother back home in Ireland, also filled with a critical supply of Barry’s Tea bags) I found myself checking out the nutritional label on the back of the wrapper. Clueless as to what I was reading, it suddenly dawned on me what I was reading wasn’t anything about food. Why did I just eat a load of preservatives which are of zero benefit to my body? Why indeed..]
If you want to participate in a live laboratory in which the food – [and air-we-breath] – chain(s) are “unintentionally” (yeah right! the expressions of innocence on the faces of those perpetrators regularly showcased to the media are as fake as the vile products they have been caught tainting) exposed to poisonous industrial chemicals with the potential to totally wreck our bodily processes, then all roads lead to China.
I’d never even heard of most of these chemicals by name. Sure I can hardly pronounce them:
- Watermelons overdosing (exploding melons of mass destruction) on forchlorfenuron growth hormones (May 2011)
- Sports and fruit drinks laced with “particularly damaging to a young male’s fertility” dioctyl phthalate (imported from Taiwan, June 2011)
- The “high blood pressure” yielding heavy metal cadmium in rice (February 2011); toxic “kidney failure” conducive melamine in milk (ongoing?)
- Arsenic in soy sauce (ongoing?)
- Copper in coffee (imported from Japan, 2008)
- Bleach in mushrooms (December 2010)
- The detergent borax in pork (added to make it resemble beef, April 2011)
- and a whole host of fruit and vegetables smeared in deltamethrin, a synthetic insecticide, and preservatives with extremely long names!
Sure it only seems like yesterday when my buddy Umberto, who being Italian takes his cooking very seriously, watched a pot of fresh tomatoes turn white in a boiling confusion of red artificial colouring (2006).
Here in Hangzhou, affectionately known as “The Pond”, on account of its scenic West Lake, so far (and counting…)we have:
- Lead in the air (a lot of it apparently, courtesy of the local battery manufacturing industry)
- Phenol in the water (courtesy of a tanker driver whose load tipped into the water supply, June 2011)… anyway phenol only causes severe eye damage, and sure what’s 25 tons of the stuff?
Spare a thought for those Harbiners up north whose Songhua River water supply was contaminated with at least 80 tons of the carcinogen Benzine (ok, so that was back in 2005 –‘water under the bridge’…so the local officials will tell you, long-term cancer risks notwithstanding). No doubt, these same faceless apparatchiks will point to Germany’s e-coli cucumbers and bean sprouts (last week), the UK’s Mad Cows (hmmm) and Ireland’s contaminated pig meat (2008) as symptomatic of a global problem not just a China problem – I’ve noticed they don’t really like talking about the “far worse than governments are revealing to the public” Fukushima nucleur disaster.
The Good News
Yes there is. Multiple the uproar each food scandal outside China receives by 1,000 times and you’ll get a sense of the disgust local Chinese feel about the continuing government incompetence and cynical manipulation of consumers by devious producers. China’s ‘You Are What You Eat’ sensitive generation is becoming increasingly aware of potential hazards of almost everything they eat and drink. What they see all around them are poor public hygiene surveillance and low standards of food quality all of which are cultivated by official incompetence, slapdash law enforcement, corruption and a corner-cutting culture among some businesses. It’s common knowledge that corrupt manufacturers and growers still use bribery and corruption to escape scrutiny.
Which brings me back to the bad news – that peach.
Eat The Peach? Certainly Not!
- Sunday evening in the neighbourhood fruit store
A shop widely considered to trade in Hangzhou’s finest selection of fruits. A large store, open 24×7, all year round, I supposed its popularity was simply down to the fact you are given what you pay for: natural fruit, preservative and pesticide free, as in normal fruit, grown locally… generating visions of suppliers being meticulously selected by a resident ‘Man from Del Monte’, giving his nod of approval to the perfect pineapple or apple… Well not quite, clearly a figment of my imagination.
The shop has a large imported section, offering exotic fruits from all over the world to their bàofā hù (nouveau riche) patrons mad for anything deemed exotic, to know off their knowledge and sophistication. In my mind best to avoid this part of the shop for the same reason I’d avoid purchasing any ‘fresh’ consumable products from outside China, knowing the length it took to get from source to shelf (Kiwi from New Zealand, Apples from the USA? Bananas from South America? Hmm, imported fruit just looks too perfect and do we really believe they’re all air-freighted in?).
So the local fruit section it is.
- Discerning shoppers everywhere like pawing their fruit for ripeness and the masses here are no different
However, in a big fruit shop that can make for a lot of grubby paws feeling up the goods: ‘The greener the fruit, the less manhandled its likely to be; let it ripen at home’, so the prevailing wisdom goes.
Two curvy, still hard, peaches caught my attention. I reckoned after being stored at an average room temperature of about 22 Celsius they’d be perfect to eat in three days. Back in the apartment, I left them on the table in their open plastic bag and went about my business, as in business trip to another city.
36 hours later I noticed a damp blot on the table cloth under the plastic bag and lifted it up. Liquid is seeping right through the plastic bag, and while one of the peaches looks exactly like it did when purchased, the other has simply dissolved into a gooey toxic mush.
- And the upshot of this morbid tale about defiled peaches?
Yesterday, still incredulous, I recounted the story to the wife of Umberto, who, Umberto often complains, is overly preoccupied by a fear of preservatives, toxic chemicals, phony foods, and corrupt practices. Mother of three, Wu Bei wasn’t in the least bit surprised offering me the following prudent advice the next time I go fruit hunting in China:
“.. pick the fruit that’s looks somewhat chewed and scarred by insects, because if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for you…. The most flawless delicious looking fruit is the most dangerous of all”.
A slightly more resigned Umberto quips that perhaps the best rule of thumb is to keep changing your poisons.
Seeing is believing…
Fast forward to March 2013
– Rivers of blood: the dead pigs rotting in China’s water supply
“Shanghai’s drinking water is under threat after 16,000 diseased pig carcasses are found in tributaries of the Huangpu river…” Source / read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/29/dead-pigs-china-water-supply?guni=Article:in%20body%20link
The reason why 16,000 pigs ended up in the Huangpu River was never fully explained by the authorities.
Fast forward to April 2013
– Bottled water scandal highlights food safety challenges
“The quality “..criteria Zhejiang’s Nongfu Spring uses are looser than national tap water standards in terms of the amount of arsenic and cadmium allowed in its products…. Nongfu Spring uses criteria that were set by the government of east China’s Zhejiang Province in 2005. National standards were upgraded in 2007…. Nongfu Spring was the only drinking water company to participate in drafting the Zhejiang provincial standards….. enterprises are only allowed to adopt local standards in exceptional cases when there are no relevant national standards….Nongfu Spring’s products do not meet the requirements for such an exception… China has formulated nearly 5,000 compulsory food safety criteria due to its excessive number of government departments….”
” Source / read more: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-04/12/c_132304484.htm
Fast forward to May 2013
– Forget mutton: in China, it’s rat, fox and mink dressed as lamb
Sold in thinly sliced rolls for consumption in hotpots the “…”lamb” was mixed with rat, fox and mink with additives including gelatin. The meat was sold to farmers’ markets in the two cities…” Source / read more: http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20130505000018&cid=1103
Fast forward to October 2013
– China’s Gutter Oil Scandal: 1/10 Of China’s Cooking Oil May Be Recycled From Garbage
“… In our current society everybody tries to swindle everybody else there’s nothing we can do about it.”
….. and this food scandal concerning the cat meat trade…
“.. selling cat meat to butchers who then repackaged it and sold it as rabbit…” Source / read more: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10417032/Chinese-police-find-slaughterhouse-selling-cat-meat.html