Oh for a toxic food app

Guest post by chinadialogue intern Yaorun Zhang.

Recently, I came across a not very funny joke: a student keeps taking pictures of the food she is eating. A foreigner sitting next to her finds this strange and finally asks, “Can your phone detect what’s in the food?” The girl sighs and says, “If only that were so.” 

It’s true, if every Chinese person had a phone that could detect the harmful substances in food, not only would the issue of food safety disappear, but the Ministry of Health could breathe a sigh of relief and the media report on fewer cases. But more than that, the joke reflects the failures of government oversight, which mean everyone has to become a food expert to protect his or her own health. 

The food safety incidents that have occurred in China over the past few years are still fresh in people’s minds: 2008’s melamine-poisoned milk powder; gutter cooking oil; Shuanghui’s clenbuterol-contaminated pork; dyed steamed buns in Shanghai; dyed swallows’ nests; and, most recently, bottled water containing carcinogens. Incidents like these are a source of constant concern for the public. 

In the three years I’ve lived in the United Kingdom, I have not once seen a news report concerning food safety. If there have been stories, they must have been few and far between. Here, food safety isn’t a topic of public debate – but you still know the regulations and controls are being strictly implemented. I believe that this is the reason the British public don’t need to be concerned about food safety. 

There are probably people who will say it’s because Western society has high moral standards. Rather, I think it’s about oversight: if you have a functioning supervision system that severely punishes those who produce counterfeit or illegal goods, almost everyone will prefer to comply with high moral standards than take desperate risks.