And the problem doesn’t stop there.
A much broader problem is that of suspect ingredients going into real food. China’s Food and Drug Administration has launched a big crackdown this year on factories that have been using “dangerous” additives, including industrial salt and gelatine, or “fake seasoning”.
The very serious effect of such practices was underscored in the notorious scandal of 2008, when at least six babies died after drinking infant formula containing the chemical compound melamine. Then, of course, there was the Fonterra botulism scare in 2013, which led to a recall and a temporary ban on powdered milk imports from New Zealand.
The scepticism about what might be happening in the production of Chinese food continues to this day. Even if the food is what it says it is on the label, it’s produced in a country where the soil and water supply are often contaminated and where plants grow and animals live in toxic air.
On a recent visit to Beijing, I asked locals how they deal with eating in China. Expatriates and the moneyed elite can shop at supermarkets and on websites offering imported food. I happily bought Anchor UHT milk off the shelf of a supermarket that caters to the foreign community. I browsed an online shop selling locally grown vegetables marketed as organic – although what that means in China is anyone’s guess.
But what about the tofu and vegetables I had at a lakeside restaurant? The meat my son ate at a hotpot place? The coconut he insisted on buying at a street stall so he could drink the juice? I decided the fun of it outweighed any potential harm, but meat on sticks would have been a different story.
And what about the 1.3 billion Chinese who don’t shop at pricey supermarkets selling American blueberries and German cereal?
The latest surveys show this is a big concern for the rapidly growing Chinese middle class. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that serious concerns about food safety have nearly tripled since 2008; almost three-quarters of respondents said it was a problem.
The Chinese Government is making an effort to improve food safety to assuage the fears and concerns of its rapidly growing affluent population.
At a big political meeting in March, Premier Li Keqiang said the Government would apply “the utmost rigour” to food standards and lower the limits on antibiotics and pesticides in food products over the next five years.
But as with air pollution, there is no quick fix. This is something that will require a huge amount of effort and change right down to, well, the grass-roots level.
There’s one factor, though, that makes it seem the Government may really put its money where its mouth is.
China’s economy is slowing sharply, so to help it leap from being a manufacturing, export-led powerhouse into a more consumer-focused market, authorities need to work on boosting shoppers’ confidence. And everyone in China, from the entrepreneurial pirates to the guy who sells coconuts from a cart, knows one thing: money talks here.
Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, writes about Asia for the Washington Post.
This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.