Food safety a long-term endeavor

Updated: 2015-09-21 07:59

By Xu Wei(China Daily)

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Beijing MBA student Chen Qiaoling created a feeling of disbelief, even laughter, in her peers and parents when she announced in 2012 that she wanted to help solve the country's food safety problem.

But she found motivation in herself as she, together with another 20 fellow students, researched news reports, laws and regulations, and talked to restaurant owners and produce vendors.

"We knew we could not provide a once-and-for-all solution to the problem. But if we could do a little of something on a daily basis, we might be able to make a difference," said Chen.

The result of their three-year endeavor is a book published in March - China's Compiled Food Safety Incidents - a compilation of food safety incidents that have taken place in China in recent years. They also founded Yueyaduo, a food safety research center at Tsinghua University.

They are now trying to set up industry standards for the food industry.

"The prime motive for food alteration lies in economic reasons. If we can ensure that the business owners can obtain bigger economic returns through the application of higher industry standards, then nobody will risk alteration," she said.

"Many workers in the industry do not even have the awareness that they need to regularly trim their nails or wash their hands," she said.

Meanwhile, through a survey of more than 100 consumers, they have also found a stunning lack of food safety knowledge among the public.

"Some say safe food is merely organic food, some say it is those that have not been applied with pesticides or fertilizers, and others say it is those without food additives," she said.

Chen's organization is merely one of the many nongovernmental groups in China dedicated to the research of food safety and popularization of food safety knowledge.

Food safety concerns across the country have given rise to mounting food activism as volunteers try to alert the public to health risks lurking at supermarkets and restaurant tables with their own research and publicity campaigns.

In 2012, Wu Heng, who was then a graduate student in Shanghai, established an online food scandal database - Throw It Out the Window - to warn the consumers with news reports about food dangers.

Four food activists in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, have established Woodpecker Food Safety Center to advocate food safety knowledge.

Sun Huanping, a former vendor in Huaian, Jiangsu province, became a food activist early in 2004 after he discovered all the tricks that vendors at agricultural produce markets use to appeal to customers.

"Bean sprouts could be sprayed with bleaching agents to appear fresher, meatballs can be made from essence and starch and they taste even better those made with real meat, ginger smoked with sulfur would be much more comfortable to the eye," said the 46-year-old who now runs a steamed bun restaurant.

"The better-looking the materials are, the more chances that they have been tempered with additives. I always prefer ones that look less pretty," he said.

Sun underwent huge pressure from family and friends after he decided to tour around the country to advocate food safety knowledge among the public.

Driving a cargo truck, Sun went to residential communities, commercial streets and schools in more than 70 cities in 28 provincial areas in 2009. The journey cost him all his family's savings. He spent another two years organizing food safety lessons for residents in his hometown in 2010 and 2011.

Despite all his efforts, Sun said food safety remained a big problem in his hometown, and consumers were still unaware of the risks involved with products.

"Most consumers still prefer the better-looking products in the market, and that has driven the vendors to temper with the products to cater to them," he said.

Individual efforts

Most of the food activists say they are driven to advocate food safety after finding themselves deeply concerned about the situation in the country.

The China Food and Drug Administration said in a food safety report on the first half of this year that 96.3 percent of food products it tested in its random inspection, which involves grain, oil, meat, egg and milk products, passed quality tests.

However, problems such as excessive residues of pesticides in agricultural produce remain severe, said Teng Jiacai, deputy head of the administration, at a news conference in August.

According to a report released by Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, in January, food safety tops the list of rumors in China's social media.

Researchers at the university found 488 articles reported as rumors on WeChat, of which 288, or 47 percent, were about food safety.

Meanwhile, food safety incidents continue to erupt across the country, as the country reported a number of food poisoning cases in schools.

In one of the most recent cases, 54 schoolchildren in Lingtai, Gansu province, were hospitalized after having symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea on Sept 11 in a suspected food poisoning case, China News Service reported.

In June, hundreds of students at a high school in Liaozhong, Liaoning province, were hospitalized in a suspected food poisoning case.

Sun Huanping, the activist, said it remained a very difficult job for food safety watchdogs to monitor the situation at the local level.

"There are simply too many business owners and too many workers in the industry. There are also too many transactions in the market, making it impossible for authorities to monitor," he said.

Sun said that after years of food activism, he found his efforts were unable to even change the situation in his hometown.

China Central Television reported in November that some vendors in Huai'an were trying to add industrial additives, including hydrogen peroxide, to prolong the shelf life of pork products.

"All I can do is to ensure the safety of food served in my restaurants," he said.

"You need to give enough profit margin to the vendors so that they will give you the right products. I tried to make bean sprouts on my own, knowing that the risk would be too high to purchase them in markets," he said.

Making a difference

Chen Qiaoling's team has expanded as it attracted the interest of several government employees and food majors at universities.

"It is surprising to see that they were so approving of our work," she said.

"We can share with them the common risks in the food industry, while we can learn from their law enforcement experience," she said.

The 200 copies of the book they published sold out within one month, and more were recently reprinted this month.

The organization is researching the possibility of establishing a platform between the consumer and people who work in the food industry "to ensure that restaurants that apply the higher standards will be rewarded with economic stimulus," she said.

She gave the example of vendors that sell fried breadsticks. "Many of them were unaware that the oil they use to fry the breadsticks cannot be used again and again. And many had no idea of how often they should change the oil they use," she said.

She also noted that many small business owners were willing to produce good food products, but did not know how to do it.

"If we talk to the experts, and then draft a standard process for the production of healthy products, and put it in a manual they can easily understand, then maybe we can make the whole industry much better," she said.

But Sun Huanping, the former activist, said food activists can only play a supporting role in the official supervision effort.

"Sometimes you want to take the matters over. But you find that you cannot even enter the doors of the business owners.

"The best thing we can do is to tell the consumers to be on guard at all times," he said.

(China Daily 09/21/2015 page5)