A few months ago, I received an email asking me to detail the foods in the United States that either come from China or have Chinese ingredients. I very quickly responded that I knew it was many, but that I had absolutely no clue which ones. The reader then responded by saying that I was part of the problem???!!!

Chinese food is proliferating around the world and that means that Chinese food issues are and will be proliferating as well. A Wired Magazine article by Maryn McKenna, entitled, “Food Safety in China, and the Risk to the U.S.,” does a good job describing the issues, but like my email to the irate reader, does little to help us know which foods to avoid.

Many years ago, I used to think China’s quality issues were “an emerging market thing” and not “a China thing.” I thought that we were constantly reading of China quality issues because China is such a large producer. I thought that until I spoke at a China-focused product liability conference and had lunch with a super high level official with the United States Consumer Protection Agency who told me that year and year out, China’s product safety record is at least six times worse on a percentage per product basis than any other country in the world. “Pakistan,” I asked. “Yes,” he said? “Cambodia?” “Yes.” “Sri Lanka?” Yes. “Laos?” “Yes.”  “How can that possibly be,” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “but it is.”

Two years ago, co-blogger Steve Dickinson wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, entitled, “Food Fumble: China Can’t Regulate Away Its Safety Problems.” He received a lot of heat for that article from a number of people who insisted that China’s new regulations would solve its food safety problems and he just needed to give China the chance. China has had its chance and there is no good evidence that things are improving.

It’s bad out there.

What is it going to take for China to clean up its food act? People not eating?

In the meantime, what are you doing to protect yourself?

  • bill rich

    The issue is not what regulation. It is whether any regulation is enforced effectively. All Chinese know that with money, all problems can be solved.

  • Mike

    What’s it going to take? Dunno… Ignoring the usual “this is China” aspects, the problem seems eminently solvable, so maybe it would take something like abolishing the special plots of land that Zhongnanhai and the like keep, forcing them to eat the same “food” as everybody else (Biden Special, anybody?).
    What I’m doing is avoiding as many made-in-China products as I can (not easy in China), substituting imported products, which I source from stores I hope can be trusted not give me Shanzai (always a risk). Beyond that, I try to grow my own, but that’s decidedly not easy in the city, living a few floors up and all…

  • DaMn

    This has really begun to concern me recently. Of course its at a grocery near me, I live in China. In fact, the food (and everything else) is 10-100x better when sent overseas. The worst stuff is kept here at “home.” I really do not see a solution and that is saying something coming from me. I see it as something that will not be helped until the “whole society” and framework is upgraded which to most people means not in my lifetime.
    The government recently posted 22 toxic chemicals known to be used in food production and announced they were banning 11 of them…..in 2013. Oh my. Two more long years to spray and contaminate and produce as much of those toxic chemicals as possible. How much of it will be stored and used after it is banned?
    Right now, it is the only thing that makes me think and ask “Can we stay here?” At some point you have to know you are poisoning your body and building up the chemicals.

  • Hi, Dan! I am sure the suggestion that you are responsible for the China ‘produce’ syndrome is tendentious and spurious, if not altogether specious. That should work for the defense.
    I lived in Cambodia for several years and would like to suggest the following solution to the conundrum posed. Cambodia does not have ready access to toxic materials [except the ones various companies occasionally deposit along the Sihanoukville shores] with which to dilute their food products. Such toxic substances are alas out of the reach of many well-meaning exporters elsewhere in Asia. Clearly, as long as the ‘filler’ is cheap and toxic, there will be an impetus to use these materials to enhance ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’.
    In the US, these processes are generally performed through overseas subsidiaries, likely as a result of ethical [sic] concerns. In China, it is increasingly apparent that these particular ethical concerns are not relevant to trade or developmental considerations.

  • William

    I can barely believe the US allows any food to be imported from China. I avoid it when I see it in the US. I live in China now, but I’m moving back to the States when I have kids because I don’t want them to be poisoned.
    The core problem is that too many Chinese people don’t care about risking injury to other people as long as they earn more money and don’t get punished. They also don’t take pride in the quality of their work; they’re just working to get paid.

  • Howcome

    I agree that there are problems in China with regard to food safety. However, things need to be taken into the overall context. So the Chinese stuff a lot of poison down their throats. This fact somehow does not seems to have an undue impact on their life expectancy and it’s trend over time.
    Some comparison across countries over time (2000 and 2011):
    China: 71.38 74.68
    Brazil: 62.94 72.53
    Indonesia: 67.96 71.33
    India: 62.50 66.80
    So this food scare looks like a lot of hype to me. I’ll go on eating Chinese food.

  • This is so true….Thanks again for a great post!

  • LD

    I go to Hong Kong once a week and bring back just about everything.

  • Anon

    Dan, I recall you once asking this, but here is something that I don’t understand. Why is it only China where people seem so willing to kill their fellow people to make an extra quid? This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Cambodia or Indonesia or Vietnam or even Laos, for instance. Is it a Chinese thing?

  • Another Anon

    Yes Anon, it is a Chinese thing. We all know that but nobody (not even me) is willing to publicly admit that.

  • Volker Müller

    Most important of all: eat healthy food.
    It seems ridiculous that people who regularly consum fast food in their home country are afraid of Chinese food.
    Grain, fruit and vegetables are not only healthy, the degree of polution is relatively low. Polution accumulates in the food chain.
    Buy fresh food on the peasant’s market, not in the supermarket. As a rule of thumb, if there is a label on the food which list the ingredients, it will not be very healthy.
    Processed food is never as healthy as fresh food, and the possibility of polution or intentional added (potentially harmful) substances is much higher in processed food than in fresh food.
    What is harmful to your health? To be honest, we don’t know. In developed countries there are thousands of food additives on the market, no long-term trial are required to prove their safety. And no one knows about the effect of combination of the additives.
    Definitly China has many food scandals, but I am 100% sure the spread of fast food and the general change of diet (too much meat) in the last 30 years does more harm to the health of people in China than polution.

  • Thank you for the mention. I’ve added a link to your post and commenters.

  • RCJ

    I lived in china for eleven years and always worried about getting sick or food poisoning in china. My wife, who is Chinese, and I moved to the states last year. Even though I was probably more healthy in China due to eating more vegetables and less meat and junk food, my wife does not want us to buy imported foods from China as she knows they are loaded with more chemicals. Her thinking is not theory as her parents and now her uncle owned and now own restaurants in China. Her parents retired and now her uncle opened a new restaurant. Previous to the opening, the suppliers mixed a broth for one of the dishes while her uncle was present. They used chemicals (not customarily used for food) to make the food taste better. Due to the chemicals, it tasted better, but her uncle did not feel comfortable dealing with them and sourced other suppliers. This is unfortunately a common practice in China and many people in the food industry do not see the problem, but a quick buck (or RMB). Because of all of this, my wife definitely looks at the sourced location of the food.

  • Tahio

    Not sure which is worse, the food or the pollution, but combined I think those two are by far the leading reasons why people leave China, especially those of us with kids.

  • Andrew

    Peasant’s markets better than supermarkets? Haven’t you seen some of them watering their vegetable gardens with filthy, black ditch water, or growing their lettuce on a grassy strip beside a busy highway?
    No peasant markets for me, thank you.

  • Dog Burger

    Isn’t this an issue for the US FDA to ensure contaminated imports don’t reach US shores?
    After all, if the United States keeps buying crap from China, China will continue selling it.
    You blame the Chinese for merely supplying demand.
    (That’s a capitalist concept, by the way)
    Or is it only Americans who are allowed to practice capitalism these days?

  • Darcy

    China’s contaminated food is a perfect metaphor for its society. I think you think that too and that is why you constantly harp on it. Am I right?

  • anon this time

    There is more to life than life expectancy. Quality of life issues should be as important a concern, especially given the rising ranks of the uninsured (both here and in China) and obesity. Soemthing that doesn’t outright kill you on contact, that doesn’t make it okay. A Nietzschean (sp?) approach to eating is trouble.
    Nevermind comparing Chinese food quality and production standards to developed western nations. They fail miserably even by my really relaxed standards, and I moved to China shortly after leaving Ecuador, where I drank tap water. A few years ago in Shanghai, in the most prosperous parts, I watched middle-class (mostly women) office workers throwing up or gagging weekly, usually by the side of the road while on the morning commute. During my studies in China, while talking with a fellow classmate who’d moved from South America, we both noted we’d had “violent” activity in our digestive systems more often during any six month period in our “China lives” than we’d had over both our lifetimes. Chinese coworkers and friends were constantly being sickened.
    Compare it to lead paint, or using water that’s near a contaminated site – torture by a thousand cuts. Is that what you want for your children? For the children of your friends and neighbors? Even for yourself, hardy though you may be?
    I now think China’s current system of government regulation is unsustainable for much longer. You simply cannot have such poor quality of life issues – in medical care, pharmaceuticals, food production and storage – and continue to have even a semblance of order. People will really tear sh*t up before they let this kind of stuff go on too long.

  • Bob Walsh

    Just spent the week on the road in China, getting a grip on the bio-pesticide industry. The 3 companies we visited are all gearing up production for increased demand post 2013.
    Still, all 3 companies noted that they were having a tough time making a sale to Chinese farmers, who seem to want the bugs dead, now, rather than in a day or so. Many don’t want to be lectured on the long term advantages of disruption of the life cycle, creating generational holes in insect populations, etc.
    The only exception to the rule was in Shandong, where farmers can ship to the ultra-premium Japanese markets, where every shipment is inspected thoroughly for pesticide residues. Farmers there have learned the hard, expensive lessons about what customers expect.

  • Twofish

    Anon: Why is it only China where people seem so willing to kill their fellow people to make an extra quid? This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Cambodia or Indonesia or Vietnam or even Laos, for instance. Is it a Chinese thing?
    It’s because when bad stuff happens in those other countries, you don’t hear about it. It also has something to do with the fact that China has six times as many people as Indonesia and 200x times more people than Laos. You have a ton of foreign reporters in Beijing, and a domestic news media that is quite active at muckraking.
    Harris: I thought that until I spoke at a China-focused product liability conference and had lunch with a super high level official with the United States Consumer Protection Agency who told me that year and year out, China’s product safety record is at least six times worse on a percentage per product basis than any other country in the world.
    I think this has something to do with the fact that China just manufacturers a lot more consumer products than any of the other countries.
    Also, it’s really hard to figure out what to make of food safety. The fact that you have more reported incidents might just mean that things are getting reported now that weren’t before. For what it’s worth, I don’t get the sense among local people that I know that food safety is particularly high on the list of things that people worry about. The *price* of food causes more conversations than the quality. It’s also likely things are different in different parts of China.
    The other thing was that Steve Dickinson was arguing that the only way that China could solve its food safety problems was to have high punitive damage awards and was holding the US up as a model for this. If the US has a good system of food safety, then you have nothing to worry about, since that good system will fix whatever problems there are. If you are worried, that means that the US system is not ideal. The obvious solution here is to hire more US food inspectors and do more inspections, but this is what Dickinson was arguing “wouldn’t work.”
    anon: I now think China’s current system of government regulation is unsustainable for much longer. You simply cannot have such poor quality of life issues – in medical care, pharmaceuticals, food production and storage – and continue to have even a semblance of order.
    People have been predicting a blow up for the last three decades, and it hasn’t happened. What the pattern has been is that something happens, people scream, it gets fixed to some degree, and people get tired of screaming about that topic and find something else to scream about. One thing about reading newspaper articles and blogs about China is that you always get the impression that the place is one step away from total chaos, whereas I don’t get that feeling just walking on the street.
    One thing about China is that people are generally optimistic so that people get rather emotional about the flaws in the system. The fact that people do get emotional, means that the emotions get expressed and dissipated.

  • Twofish

    One other thing. Human beings have a limited capacity for moral outrage. Every month or so, there is some new thing in China that gets the blogosphere screaming. Last month it was train safety. Who knows what it will be next month? The thing about this is that when you have the “outrage of the month” typically people will do something that will improve the problem somewhat, and then it gets overwhelmed by something else.
    Food safety is “old news” in China and the US. There is this steady stream of problems, but nothing that causes outrage the way that the milk scandal did. The thing about the milk scandal was that it impacted millions of people and the entire Chinese dairy industry, whereas the more recent things are local issues that don’t hit nearly as many people.
    Also, you need to consider the possibility that there is no problem……
    Most people don’t realize that most concentrated apple juice in the US is made in China and most garlic is also Chinese grown. There is a list of fruits and vegetables that are primarily Chinese that no one knows about, and people don’t know about it because there hasn’t been any news reports of major scandals or problems, and I’d like people to consider the possibility that there are no news reports about problems with Chinese produce imported into the United States because there is in fact no problem with Chinese produce imported into the United States.
    It’s also that the politics is different. One of the thing that caused a lot of outrage in 2008 was that China was in the middle of some tough trade disputes, so there were some vested interests that wanted to play up problems with Chinese goods to get leverage on those disputes. The situation with agribusiness is different because
    1) US agriculture wants China to relax rules on imports of grain and this means relaxing imports of Chinese fruits and vegetables. Also in areas in which the US just doesn’t want Chinese imports, there are already strong trade tariffs so this isn’t an issue. By and large, China is allowed to export things to the US that no one in the US is interested in doing locally.
    2) Also, US agriculture is not terribly interested in creating moral outrage over Chinese food safety practices, because that attention will have people quickly asking questions about US domestic food safety. If someone makes a big deal about pesticide residue in Chinese fruits, then people are going to start asking a lot of questions about pesticide residue in California fruits.
    But it’s really difficult to figure out what to do, because it’s hard to fix a problem where there is no obvious problem. People eat large amounts of Chinese imported food, and no one has reported any issues and without people reporting a problem, then it’s not clear what to do.

  • allroads

    Have worked on a number of food related proejcts over the years (several on safety), and getting beyond the questions of whether or not Chinese people “care” or are willing to poison for a buck for a moment, it is important to udnerstand that the problems are really supply chain based.
    1) Fragmented farming (avg plot in China is 660m2 in size) guarantees massive variance in quality, little incentive for investment in equipment or inputs, and a regular process whereby crops are rotated for profit.
    2) Bringing food to market essentially requires consolidators to bring together thousands of small yields into one large one, and that is a HUGE issue if no QA process in in place. Example: Melamine in milk. It only takes a couple of consolidators to contaminate entire stocks
    3) Food storage. Getting the food from farm to retailer is another issue as proper handling of crops is essentially a 5 ply carton at best. For some crops, grapes, a cold chain process is in place to prevent spoilage, but many “cold chain” warehouses are poorly managed (if the A/C is on at all)… and given the additional costs of cold chain, and the fragmented supply chain, few are willing to pay the costs.
    4) Consumer habits. Perhaps the safest area of the entire process, given Chinese food tends to be fried at high temperatures to kill off everything (incl. flavor), a number of China’s food safety problems exist here as large batches of food in colleges, worker canteens, and restaurants can be adulterated (rat poison) easily
    5) Third party verifications. Separate from the above issues, another issue is that China has yet to establish a credible third party consumer (or food) safety group, and this means that consumers are often unable to access the information they need about food / food suppliers to make an informed (better) decision
    6) Policy/ pricing. Underlying all this is Beijing’s knack for establishing pricing/ policies that (as a side effect) encourage food adulteration. NDRC sets pricing, and that can squeeze farms, who will look for short cuts. One the other end, policies are put into place that catapult food production in areas where the supply chain/ quality infrastructure is not in place (milk)…. and that creates its own issues.

  • Twofish: The “at least six times worse on a percentage per product basis than any other country in the world” is the key phrase. Perhaps you’re suggesting that it has something to do with the fact that China manufactures more *types* of products?
    On this being a trend in increased incident reporting– can’t it be both? And following that line of thought, perhaps even now incidents are being underreported compared to other countries (perhaps instead of 6x, it’s 10x, who knows).
    On your remark, “I don’t get the sense among local people that I know that food safety is particularly high on the list of things that people worry about.” – perhaps people have a lot of things to worry about. Or perhaps the people you’re speaking with don’t understand the full health effects of e.g., neurotoxins or whatnot and they SHOULD be worried about that dimension, as well as ‘will this make me puke or not’.

  • Chinese want to dominate the world with their cheap products. Countries ought to check the quality of the goods coming from China. The foods most likely are contaminated and has many health issues. It is wise to buy our own products to help our sick economy and alleviate our unemployment problems. 

  • Joyce Stotts

    My friend recently bought a ‘doggie chew” treat from ______, which is from China. The dog died 8 hrs. later, and the Vet. said there was NOTHING at all that could be done. I noticed an older Maryn McCenna article about Chinese pork being laced with drugs. My opinion is that is what happened to the dog. But WOW! Only eight hours and under the care of a vet., and the dog died horribly, even so.