China's Communist Party Congress is coming into its final stretch, culminating later this week in the announcement of the Party's new leaders. Chinese are following the proceedings with varying degrees of interest. But there's great interest in a topic that came up in one of the news conferences — on food safety.
The event was meant to be cute — kid reporters asking senior ministers questions — a little entertainment on the sidelines of the Party Congress. They hadn't banked on 11-year-old Sun Luyuan, pink bow askew in her hair.
"I want to ask the uncles and aunties here one question," Sun Luyuan said. "Grandpa Hu (meaning President Hu Jintao) said in his report that the health of the people should be improved. But even at my school, there have been problems with our lunches. Some students got food poisoning after drinking the milk and others got sick after eating the food. I like snacks, but how can I know what I'm eating is safe?"
This is a question many Chinese would like to ask their leaders, especially after the 2008 milk scandal, when the plastic melamine was put in infant formula to pass protein tests. It left six infants dead, and made another 300,000 kids sick. Since then, Chinese have become more outspoken in protesting against ever-more-creative food adulteration. They want their government to do more to prevent it.
As China has become more affluent, Chinese are eating more meat — four times more than 30 years ago. But ramping up to feed that demand comes with risks — and temptations for bad actors looking to make a quick buck. The resulting food scandals concern Wu Heng, a 20-something food safety blogger.
"Take pork, for example," Wu said. "Some was found to contain the illegal additive clenbuterol. It's put in pig feed to make the pork leaner, but it can also cause heart attacks in humans. It's gotten to the point where some Chinese coaches tell their athletes not to eat Chinese pork, unless they raise the pigs themselves."
Wu Heng didn't start out as a food safety advocate. Just a year ago, he was a grad student at Fudan University, studying historical geography. But he kept hearing about food scandals. One involved a restaurant near his school, using a carcinogenic chemical to make pork taste like beef.
"And I had eaten it for maybe half a year," he said. "I was shocked."
So Wu Heng decided to do something about it. He started a food safety blog called "Throw it Out the Window." He got the name from a story about President Theodore Roosevelt, who president was reading "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair, about Chicago meat-processing plants at the turn of the last century. As the story goes, Roosevelt was so shocked to read what went into his sausage that he threw it out the window.
"From that point on, the US food safety situation became better and better," said Wu Heng. "So that's the reason I named my website 'Throw it Out of the Window'."
The United States once had its own problems with watered-down milk and bad food, killing children in immigrant slums. But then President Roosevelt created the Food and Drug Administration. Chris Hickey, who opened the FDA's office in China more than four years ago, says the FDA's founding came at a time in America that has some resonance with China's situation today.
"There was a focus at that time on the limits of capitalism, and the challenges of industry if it went unregulated," Hickey said. "In that context, Upton Sinclair's novel, "The Jungle", was really formative in bringing to the attention of the American people, issues related to food safety in the stockyards of Chicago. So it was in 1906 in that context that the modern FDA was formed."
Wu Heng would like to see a similar revolution in Chinese food safety — and he's doing his bit. His team of about 30 volunteers help him post information on food safety scandals around the country. And Weibo, China's version of Twitter, has helped him spread the word.
Once Weibo users caught wind of his blog, the number of monthly hits went from about 10,000 in one month to more than five million the next. Shanghai food safety officials tracked him down on his campus and commended him, and he ended up linking to their website, so people with food safety complaints knew who to call. He says, the Shanghai authorities even consolidated four separate food safety hotlines into one.
"Before, people had to remember four numbers to call. It's very difficult to remember that," he said.
And if you called one of them?
"They'd say, it's none of my business. You should call another department."
This is a problem for food safety enforcement throughout China. Eleven separate agencies have overlapping responsibilities for monitoring some half a million food companies. The FDA's Chris Hickey says while he thinks the Chinese government is serious about trying to improve food safety, their current approach is not a recipe for success.
"You can't test your way to safety. Given the global economy and the way that food is traded and shipped all around the world, you're never going to have enough inspectors, you're never going to have enough labs to do the job. It's just unrealistic."
The alternative? Build a system that's prevention-based. Hickey says the FDA has run workshops for Chinese government officials and food industry representatives, on how to do it.
"What our experts were able to do was sit over the course of three, four, five days, with 300 or 400 firms represented in the room, and not just talk about broad principles of food protection, but also develop with those firms specific plans for their plants, and how they can prevent adulteration that may be economically motivated."
But that kind of change takes time — and many Chinese people are growing impatient. They're unlikely to be soothed by the answer Education Minister Yuan Guiren gave to the 11-year-old reporter on the edges of the Party Congress.
He told her, "Local governments and schools are all working hard to ensure students' food safety. In some places there have been problems — we can't promise no problems will happen. But we've strengthened the political construction in terms of theory and environment."
Maybe it's just a matter of phrasing. Political jargon doesn't work so well on the Chinese masses these days — clear information and results do.
With half a billion Chinese online, efforts like those of food safety blogger Wu Heng or 11-year-old Sun Luyuan can be turbo-charged and amplified — demanding safe food on the table, and a more responsive relationship between China's government and its people.
Mary Kay Magistad's reporting on food safety in China is part of the "Food for 9 Billion" series, a collaboration with PBS Newshour and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Watch her report on NewsHour, Tuesday, Nov. 13.
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