China’s food fears (part two) - China Dialogue

China’s food fears (part two)

In the second part of his report into the food industry, Zhou Qing issues a stark warning to Chinese consumers and asks what steps can be taken to improve food safety.

In this superficial age of ours, a swathe of beauty parlours has opened to meet the cosmetic needs of the adult population. But few people know that while the artificially produced beautiful people walk down our streets, the food products in our markets are also undergoing cosmetic treatments.

Wenling City in Zhejiang Province is famous all over the country for its prawns. The prawns from that area are yellowy pink, and look delicious, but behind this delicious exterior lies a dark secret. A local manager involved in the prawn processing business told me that the processing treatment is quite simple.

First the prawns are cooked in boiling water, then they are dried and peeled. The most important step of this process is the cooking. The colour of the prawns depends on the length of cooking time, so it is important to get it right.

The secret, though, is to add some red powder to the cooking pot, and to keep adding it during the cooking process. The colour stays on the prawn after the drying process for two or three months. The prawn producers in the area all use this red powder. According to various investigations, this red powder is called ‘Liangcanghua Essence’, commonly known as ‘acid red 73’. It is mostly used as a wood dye, and is forbidden as a food additive because it can cause cancer.

Pinglu County in Shandong Province is famous for its fruit. A few illegal canning businesses buy cheap, unripe strawberries, peaches and apricots and put them into cans. Central Television Station’s ‘Weekly Quality Report’ showed how in Xinchao Canning Factory, the workers would pour onto strawberries chemicals to stop rotting and the growth of bacteria, then they would bottle the strawberries, and so as to make them look fresh, the workers would pour a red liquid into the bottles, a carmine colour, so that the green, unripe strawberries are transformed into red strawberries. And the method of turning white peaches into yellow canned peaches is even more horrifying. First the white peaches are put in a steel vat, and the skin is removed using industrial caustic soda, then they are soaked in lemon yellow and sunset yellow dyes and boiled, so that the white peaches turn a yellow colour. After that, sweeteners are added, the cans are labelled and sent off all over the country.

The beautiful cakes that are made for Chinese New Year always look appealing. But the beautiful exterior often hides dangerous, illegal contents. A New Year Cake shop in Shanghai’s Pudong District fumigates its cakes with a sulphur powder to preserve their shop life, whitens them with industrial bleach, and even uses cheap industrial sodium hydrosulphite to make the cakes look fresh. According to a worker in this shop, they were not the only company to use sulphur powder and sodium hydrosulphite, many other factories have used them for some time.

Recently the Nanjing hygiene quality inspectors have banned all products from the ‘Haibawangjia Tianxia’ Company, because it has been found that they have altered the dates of quick-freeze products that have passed their sell-by dates, and put them on the market again. It was found that this company would scrape off the old sell-by dates and replace them with new ones before trying to sell the products off again. For suspicious customers, there is now no difference between products that have no sell-by dates printed on them from those that do, as they can’t be sure that the sell-by dates have been tampered with. How can people eat these kinds of products with any peace of mind? And many supermarkets sell loose dumplings, mixing up the fresh ones with the out of date ones. The factories just put the old dumplings into new bags and send them off to the supermarkets to be sold, and no one is the wiser.

On 1 June, this kind of thing happened in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. Seeing that the date on the 30,000 bottles of soft drinks had nearly arrived, the unscrupulous manager of the ‘Ketaolu’ drink company decided to wipe the dates off using some kind of glue, then printed a new sell-by date that was a full thirteen months later than the old one.

Many customers wonder how it is that products that have passed their sell-by dates are not destroyed, but are instead returned to the manufacturer who then changes the dates and sells them again. Who is responsible for destroying products that have passed their sell-by dates? What have the relevant government bodies done about this situation?

There are many strange things that happen in food production. The Many Fresh Oranges drink processing company produces drinks that have no trace of real orange in them. What you find in the company’s factory is not oranges but nearly ten different kinds of sweeteners, flavourings additives and colourings. This was seen in April 2004 in their factory in Nanchang. The drink is just made from tap water and a great deal of additives that far exceed the maximum levels set by the government.

Even more worrying is the so-called ‘organic green tea’ that purports to be of no danger to public health, but that in fact contain high levels of pesticides. The Xuanlang Tea Company of Shizi, Anhui Province, cultivates 20,000 mu (540 square kilometres) of tea. It is supposed to be a model for organic farming in China. A reporter from CCTV visited several tea farms in the locality and found that many farmers who had contracted land in the area were in fact using phosphate fertilisers, Jiaji 1605 and other such toxic agricultural chemicals. In the tea factory, the reporter found that the workers were adding glutinous rice powder to the tea, so as to make the thick, fresh tea leaves curl up. In the Number 3 Jingzhi Tea Company of Xuanlang it was discovered that the rice mixture sprayed on the tea was black. This meant that even the ‘dregs’ of the tea could be sold for the same price as the proper tea.

There have been many suspicions about the dried milk pieces produced in China, with rumours that they contain no fresh milk. These rumours have damaged the domestic dairy industry. There has been a recent loss of trust in the safety of milk pieces. Many supermarkets have taken the product off their shelves or have demanded to see authenticity documents from the manufacturers. All milk pieces have been removed from the shops in Chongqing, and in Guangzhou, the customers have demanded refunds for the milk pieces that they have bought.

Recently, Beijing’s Quality Inspection Department made an investigation into meat products and canned foods, and found that only 75% of the meat products met with the safety regulations. The main problem with the meat products was that they used high levels of benzoic acid. Half of the canned food didn’t meet with the regulations. Only 66.7% of tinned tomatoes met with the regulations. The largest problem here was the quality of the ingredients and the high levels of additives. On 6 August, the department announced the results of an investigation it made into drinks that use carbonic acid. It looked into 30 drinks produces by 29 Beijing companies, and found only 18 met with the regulations – that is a failure rate of 69%. During the investigation it was discovered that the levels of saccharomycete and sulphur dioxide were too high.

Jiangsu Province has recently investigated 543 cake manufacturers, and found that of 113 cakes tested, only 65 met with the regulations, which is a pass rate of just 57.5%. After that the Jiangsu Hygiene Department warned customers to take care when buying unpackaged food products.

In Hunan, there is a tradition of pickling vegetables in earthenware pots. There is a fish head dish cooked with these pickles that is particularly famous in this region. But a quality inspection team in Hunan’s Qiuyang City found in the Xiangbei Market, a factory whose 60 square metres of floor space was covered with more than 80 black plastic bags, and that in the salty water in which the vegetables were being pickled were floating dead black and white cockroach-like insects.

An inspection team of Beijing’s Haidian District investigated a private supplier of dried radishes, and found that 25 tonnes, or more than 1300 boxes, of ‘Qianjiang’ dried radishes that were headed for Beijing’s expensive hotels had levels of formic acid that were 5 to 7 times higher than those allowed.

On 11 April, the National Quality Inspection Department announced that they had found four products that contained illegal quantities of brightening agents. These were: ‘Qinlaoda’ flour produced by Xian’s Qinlaoda Food Company; ‘Meidian’ noodles produced by Shanghai’s Meidian Company; ‘Fengtao’ flour and ‘Fengtao’ noodles produced by Nanjing’s Chuangxin Food Company. They also announced that a survey into white and brown sugar in 2004 found serious problems with the white sugar produced by Haikou’s Jingshan Sugar Company, Yunnan’s Fulong Sugar Company, Yunnan’s Xingfu Sugar Company, and Yunnan’s Bafang Sugar Company. The main causes for concern were the high levels of sulphur dioxide residues, insufficient levels of sucrose, high quantities of dirt and grit, and unsatisfactory labelling.


While I was carrying out some research into ‘Lean Meat Powder’ in Jiangxi Province, I travelled around for a while and found that in Nancheng City there were some serious problems with food safety. Below are some of the reports I collected from local newspapers.

On 18 May, Nancheng Evening Standard reported that the Nancheng bakeries often alter the sell-by dates of the breads they sell. They make biscuits out of bread that is about to go mouldy, and they take the crust off the mooncakes sold at the Mid-Autumn festival and use the stuffing again, spreading the stuffing onto bread rolls, making a cheap fruit bread. And in the markets of Nancheng, you can now find poor quality pale sesame seeds that have been dyed using industrial dyes and sold as high quality black sesame seeds.

On 9 July 2004, the Jiangnan Daily reported that the Jiujiang City’s quality inspection team, in just two months, found four companies that were manufacturing fake, substandard products: fake coca cola and orange drinks made with caramel colourings and flavourings; bean products made with left-over oil bought from restaurants; the presence of benzoic acids on green vegetables; pickled vegetables containing high levels of sulphur products and covered with mould. On the same day, the team closed down two illegal enterprises: one that put fake ‘Hong Kong Tianyu Soy Sauce’ into old bottles. The team confiscated 120 cases, containing more than 1440 bottles. They also confiscated 60 barrels of tap water that was labelled ‘Beijing Teli Pure Water’ that were stored in a dark lavatory.

On 16 July the Nancheng Evening Standard reported that a woman trader in the Nancheng market, was selling off the ‘yellow meat’ of sick pigs as ‘pork’, using fake documents. This meat is not for human consumption. If it is eaten people will suffer from diarrhoea and nausea.

On 27 July, the Nanchang Daily reported that ‘rubbish meat’ was being sold in 20 markets in Nancheng. The pigs’ mammary glands, lymph nodes and various other dirty ‘off cuts’ are sold in the main to small restaurants, pork fat businesses, or to manufacturers of dumplings who mix this bad meat with the better meat to make their stuffings.

In July the Jiangxi Province quality inspection team carried out some tests on vegetable oil, soy sauce and cold drinks sold in the province. 88.7% of the vegetable oils met with regulations, 60% of peanut oil met with regulations, the most serious problem with these oils were the high levels of residues of solvents present; butter was found to be too sour in many cases, and to have high levels of mould. Only 64% of soy sauces met with regulations, and the problems with these were low levels of amino acids and proteins and incorrect levels of ammonium salt. 20% of cold drinks didn’t meet with regulations. Only 63.6% of iced lollies met with regulations, and the problems with these were the fact that the protein quality and fat content didn’t comply with regulations, and that the labels were not up to standard.

 The most serious problem was found with the stewed food products produced by the ‘Huangshanghuang’ company of Gongqing, Jiangxi Province, which caused large scale food poisonings in Nancheng and Fengcheng, leading to the hospitalisation of one hundred people. This greatly damaged the reputation of this company in the area, and the relevant branches of this company were closed by the authorities.

After the poisonings of 22 June, the Nancheng authorities investigated the case and were able to announce to the public the real cause. A branch of Huangzhanghuang had ordered too many ingredients during the Duanwu Festival, and because they didn’t employ adequate anti-bacterial measures, staphylococcus spread to toxic levels.

Every Sunday at 12:30, CCTV broadcasts ‘Weekly Quality Report’, and this has already become one of the station’s most popular shows. The reason for its increasing popularity is the fact that it regularly reports on the problem of the safety of food. Many viewers tune in especially to learn about cases that no one could dare imagine were true. For example, using highly carcinogenic alum on pumpkin seeds meant for human consumption; the ‘beautification’ of fruit; adding chemical fertilisers to rice noodles etc. The beginning of the show starts with the words, ‘You won’t believe anything you see, but we will do everything we can to get the proof that you need.’ Each case that they expose is astonishing and disturbing.

But while exposing these dark secrets, CCTV provides detailed information on how the criminals operate. So, in a situation where the governments’ laws have limited power to deal with these criminals, are these television programmes actually giving people the information they need to be able to copy these crimes?

And another worry is, just how far can ‘Weekly Quality Report’ go? What kind of pressure will it receive in the future? It is clear that since the programme broadcast on 4 July, the well-known show ‘Interviews on Important Matters’ has produced fewer exposés. But what kind of pressure has ‘Weekly Quality Report’ faced? Who has been trying to control the programme? I hope this is just paranoid speculation.


Migrant workers’ rice’, which contains the highly carcinogenic ‘huangqu’ toxin, is mainly eaten by the peasant migrants working in the cities and large institutions like schools that buy food in large quantities. These toxins can stay in the body for 15 to 20 years. This food can cause problems that in the future will lead to social unrest.

The migrant workers are already at the bottom of the social ladder, working for pitiful pay. On top of this, it has now been revealed that their bosses, in an attempt to save money, feed them with cheap rice containing the carcinogenic ‘huangqu’ toxin. Recently this cheap ‘migrant workers’ rice’ has been found in markets in ten provinces and cities, including Hebei, Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Tianjin. Four reporters from CCTV’s ‘Time Line’ programme went to markets in Langfang, Hebei Province, Harbin in Heilongjiang Province, as well as in Beijing and Tianjin to look into this situation.

The reporters found that this unsafe, stale rice was openly on sale even in Beijing and Tianjin. In Langfang’s agricultural products market, half the rice stalls were selling this ‘migrant workers’ rice’, but most of it was hidden in a back room. Compared to other rice, the migrant workers’ rice was yellow and smelt a little mouldy. Someone in the know told me that this migrant workers’ rice has always been for sale, and is in the main sold to construction companies, it is just that this year it has sold in larger quantities than before. A 46 jin bag of migrant workers’ rice sells for just 48 yuan (US$6). A rice seller will only make about 1 yuan (US$0.13) on each bag of normal rice sold, but although this migrant workers’ rice is a third of the price of normal rice, the rice seller can make at least 7 or 8 yuan a bag on it.

Since it is already well known that most of this rice is sold to construction sites, the canteens on construction sites have found ways of trying to disguise the rice they use. They soak the rice and rub it, which gets rid of the yellow colour and removes a lot of the smell of mould, so that the grains of rice look big and white. The television reporter secretly interviewed one stall holder who said that he buys batches of 400 bags, and sells them very quickly. Another stall holder was able to sell 4 to 5,000 jin of this rice a day.

A reporter secretly interviewed a boss of a construction site, who said that there were 300 migrant workers working on his site. Since he had started buying ‘migrant workers’ rice’ his costs had been cut a lot, in fact he was able to make total savings of about 5000 yuan (US$630) a month.

According to the journal, ‘China Quality: 10,000 miles’, it’s not only Hebei and Helongjiang where this problem is serious, the cities of Beijing and Tianjin also sell this rice in large quantities. Stale rice has been found in many large agricultural products markets in Beijing. The reporter saw 100 tones of this stale rice for sale in Beijing’s Liulitun market. One stallholder there said that he sold 30 tonnes a month. On this basis, the migrant workers in Beijing must consume more than 10,000 tonnes of stale rice a year.

Stale rice is not fit for human consumption. It can only be sold on auction, to businesses that have special authorisation to make fermented drinks. Hu Xiaosong, the Deputy Head of China’s Agricultural University said, ‘The huangqu toxin is about ten times more poisonous than the qinghua toxin. Once it enters the body, it causes serious damage to the liver, and can lead to liver cancer. According to research, cancer can develop just 24 weeks after consuming this toxin, it is the most highly carcinogenic toxin found to date. And this is what the migrant workers are eating every day.

This stale rice isn’t only eaten by migrant workers, it’s also served at universities and work cafeterias, and sold to some food manufacturers. The reporters also looked into where this stale rice was coming from, and found that most of it came from the Northeast – in particular Liaodong in Liaoning Province and Wuchang in Heilongjiang Province. And Beijing has its own migrant workers’ rice. Some of it comes from state-owned rice storehouses, and some from stale rice auctioneers. This stale rice not only an issue of food safety, it is an issue that reveals the true nature of our morality and political system.

Recently CCTV ‘Weekly Quality Report’ has revealed that in Bengbu in Anhui Province, fruit jelly factories use edible gum instead of fresh fruit to produce cheap fruit jellies. As well as gum, they add a variety of different additives that are strictly forbidden by the government, preservatives, brightening agents, saccharine, colourings, and flavourings. Their equipment is very basic, and their hygiene levels are far below the standard. Bengbo is Anhui’s main producer of fruit jellies, there are about 100 different factories making them there, and the area has become famous for producing cheap jellies. There are nearly 50 different brands of fruit jelly produced in the city, and they sell for about 1.5 yuan a jin, or as little as 0.7 yuan a jin. The ingredients for good quality fruit jelly cost at least 0.6 yuan a jin. The local bosses said that the fruit jelly is made with artificial fruit. This so-called artificial fruit is not treated in any way, but put straight into the jelly pots. The boss told the reporter, ‘In Bengbo, the price of the fruit jelly just about covers the cost of the plastic packaging. It’s very low. We only make a few cents a crate, so we have to rely on selling large quantities of the product.’


When one looks back at all the food scandals that have occurred in recent years, we can’t help repeating the mantra that the Japanese ‘devils’ muttered in the old films: ‘All conscience is destroyed!’ But we can’t allow ourselves to forget all the terrible things that have happened. These food products are bought with the hard-earned cash of our people, and the price they have to pay is their lives, which they can only live once. We can’t just sit back passively and allow these things to happen. In 1987, during the outbreak of Hepatitis A in Shanghai, you could sell a bottle of Banlangen medicine [used to treat symptoms of Hepatitis] for the price of a much sought after television set. And ten years later in Guangzhou when SARS broke out, a bottle of vinegar [thought to help kill the virus] could sell for as much as 200 yuan! This is not fantasy, this is really the world we are living in. One can’t help remembering what Julius Fučík said: ‘Man – remain vigilant!’


The author: Qing Zhou is a writer and folklorist. Born in 1965, Zhou has been a visiting scholar in the U.S. and Russia. His works include What Kind of God: A Survey of the Current Safety of China’s Food (Reportage Literature, 2004).”