Food safety is such a big issue in China that it deserves its own category. Here are all articles regarding this topic.
We’re in the middle of the sānfútiān 三伏天, the three ten-day periods signifying the hottest days of summer. In the west we call it “dog days of summer” for reasons which escape me. But my point is that it’s hot. Darn hot, and humid. And there’s no way that any fruits, vegetables or meats can survive more than a couple hours in this heat before starting to spoil or grow healthy colonies of unhealthy bacteria. Major groups including the WHO and the USDA all mention how exposed foods should be stored and chilled if left out for more than two hours — and only one hour if it’s very hot, over 90 °F/32 °C.
So let’s mix this fact of biology with Beijing’s charming images of the summer: watermelons baking in the sun from dawn to dusk on truck beds, their donkeys patiently waiting. Oh, and how about everyone eating barbecued lamb chuanr, sitting in tiny chairs at the mobile stands on every corner at night, playing cat-and-mouse with the police? Or the expat-preferred Sanyuanli food market’s meat stalls filled with piles of meat — uncovered, open to the non-chilled air, flies flittering between hanging carcasses. And this is supposed to be where top restaurants buy their food?
In my clinic, I’ve seen a more than usual summertime spike in diarrhea and food poisonings, but I’ve also never seen such a high amount of spoiled produce as I see this summer. I’ve never had problems with watermelons before, but twice this week my watermelon was already skunked when I cut into it at home, already fermented in the sun. Even my wife got diarrhea this week after eating sushi — at the most popular sushi restaurant in Beijing, no less. And how many Beijing street corners are filled with people laying out their vegetables and fruits on the pavements?
So the point here is to be careful during these six weeks of peak summer. Be watchful of what you eat and where you eat. And don’t assume that it’s a safe restaurant or market just because “every expat goes there.” No place is safe from Biology 101.
My tips for the next few weeks
My wife and I are cutting way back on buying and eating all meat, especially fish. If we do buy meat, we certainly would only stick to top-end hypermarkets with wrapped meats on cooled racks, including Carrefour, Walmart and Metro (our favorite).
We also get much more of our produce from the hypermarkets instead of our usual local one. And we’re more vigilant about peeling and soaking. And if anything tastes a bit funny, as did our watermelons this week — toss it out and try again tomorrow.
Maybe its also not a bad idea also to be proactive and buy some anti-diarrhea OTC medicines now to keep at home. My personal must-have are bismuth tablets from the US (Pepto-Bismol, AKA “the pink liquid”, sadly not available in China). But Smecta powder (蒙脱石) and probiotics (the good bacteria in yogurt) may come in handy, as well as loperamide pills (洛哌丁胺) just in case the diarrhea gets bad.
But don’t let me scare you totally from summer fun: there are some restaurants that are doing the right thing. If you’re truly craving for street food, you could try the skewers from restaurant chain Meizhou Dongpo 眉洲东坡, usually rated A for food safety. I like their 串肉 firstly because their streetside grill runs on gas, which is much cleaner and safer than coal. More importantly, their meats are chilled and wrapped up in a cooler right next to the grill. Check out their photos below:
I’m glad to see that the Beijing Healthcare Forum is continuing to offer the occasional free lecture to the public. I’ve been invited back to their next meeting on July 18th at 8 pm, to discuss food safety. All are invited! Here’s their invite with details:
Food Safety in China, a talk with Dr. Richard Saint Cyr
United Family Health Group Director, Clinical Marketing and Communications
Date: Wednesday 2012.07.18
Time: 8:00pm, come early for food, drinks and more networking
Location: Moment Cafe, Sanlitun SOHO B1-525 (Building #5)
(From the main entrance opposite of YaShow, go down the stairs, follow the river and make the first turn on your left.)
Call us if you get lost: 1355-2756-227
About this talk:
It seems that there’s a new food safety scandal every day in the headlines. What can we do to protect ourselves? As a family medicine doctor living and working in China for over five years, Dr. Cyr offers tips on healthy eating practices at home, at the market, and in restaurants. The talk will also review the major food safety scandals from the last few years.
Dr. Richard Saint Cyr is a family medicine doctor from the U.S. He completed a bachelor’s degree in English at Columbia University (New York) before turning his interests to the medical field. He received his medical degree from Saint Louis University School of Medicine (USA) and his Family Medicine specialty certification from the University of California, San Francisco program at Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center. In February 2007, he moved to Beijing and now sees patients at Beijing United Family Hospital. He is also the Group Director of Marketing and Communications for United Family Healthcare in China.
Dr Saint Cyr also has a large media presence in Beijing, and his wellness blog (www.myhealthbeijing.com) is the most popular expat medical Web site in China. He is also the featured health columnist for Beijingkids magazine and has a weekly interview on CRI Radio’s Beijing Hour. He also has a popular microblog on Weibo at weibo.com/daniudaifu.
When it comes to the essentials of life, there isn’t anything more basic than water. We all require H2O every day of our lives, and you wouldn’t last more than a few days without any water. OK, we get that — but as usual when living in China, we need to filter this basic concept through our grey-tinted glasses and ask, “which water is safe to drink?”
My initial response is that you shouldn’t drink straight from the tap, as while many central water systems are clean, there may be heavy metals and bacteria collected along the way in the piping. But I would be generally saying this in almost any city in the world, so the same idea applies here. Actually, in New York City the tap water is famously clean, but even while living in San Francisco I always used a Brita table-top water filter and kept refilling it all day. I probably didn’t need to, but I always felt safer.
I think the same concept applies to the major cities in China: a recent Global Times headline “Half of Tap Water Undrinkable” certainly didn’t dissuade me from my caution. And how many remember the 2007 Beijing Times expose that half of Beijing’s bottled water jugs were counterfeit, using tap water or fake Watsons stickers? Or last year’s China Daily expose discussing the dangers of cheap water jugs? How many of you realize that many of those big blue jugs you get delivered to your homes and offices aren’t as safe as you think? I strongly recommend that anyone buying those blue water jugs read that above article from China Daily. One very concerning stat was a July 2011 survey which showed that 31 water brands had failed inspection due to high levels of bacteria in them. Here are some more disturbing quotes:
Li said it is no secret in the industry that about half of these large bottles do not meet appropriate standards. While doing research in Hebei province, Li said, he saw workers from small illegal workhouses smash waste DVDs and small plastic bottles into granules and sell them to factories that make the big water bottles.
“Water is contaminated if it is kept in vessels like this. People may feel a stomachache or get dizzy if they drink this water for a long time,” Li said. “Price competition is hot in the industry, and the bottles account for the biggest portion of the total cost.” Li said bottles that meet standards cost at least 30 yuan. Forged bottles are hard to identify, Li said, even by professionals.
If you lift a standard bottle and a substandard one together against the sun, he said, it’s clear that the “good” bottle is a transparent light blue, with no impurities. The substandard bottle is darker and rougher, with low transparency and more scratches. When such a comparison isn’t possible, Li said, it’s hard to make a distinction.
Distribution: The biggest risks occur after the filled bottles leave the production plant. Few companies in the industry have retail operations. Instead they rely on dealers and distributors to sell and deliver their water, and that’s when they lose control of their products. “Some distributors simply pump tap water into the bottles that are labeled as famous brands. Some replace qualified bottles with substandard ones,” Li said. “The authorities care most about the producers. There is hardly any supervision in this segment.”
Even when the water reaches the customer, risks remain. The large jugs require the use of a water dispenser. Li said many people think the dispensers are convenient and safe but don’t think to clean them often enough. They also should consume the water within a week, he said. “What they usually don’t know,” he said, “is that once the barrel is loaded onto the dispenser, air and dust start to come inside, making it a comfortable reproduction site for germs.”
This brings up one of my major survival tips in China: have as much control over your environment as possible. That’s why I recommend you use a water filter system at home and not get those water jugs delivered. You can read a lot of good consumer information about water filter systems at Consumersearch.com. When I first came to China, we used our table-top filter for a couple years, but now we have “upgraded” to an installed water filter under the kitchen sink. I bought an American brand, Aquasana, which is consistently rated by Consumer Reports as top quality, but other brands are also highly rated. These under-the-sink versions also are more efficient filters than those table-top versions. But they are more expensive and also a bit difficult to install. If price is an issue, then a table-top version is ok.
Please Stop Delivering Your Water
I think water filter systems at your home or office are far better solutions than bottled water, as long as you are replacing the filters as scheduled. I think environmental cost should also be considered, and it’s obvious that the environmental impact of the plastics and the gas needed from delivering water jugs is far more severe than the environmental cost of installed filters at home and office. And heaven forbid that you’d continuously buy small plastic bottles of water — what an astoundingly wasteful and expensive solution! That assumes, of course, that you’re using a local “trusted” water such as Nongfu instead of the incredibly wasteful imported water such as Fuji and others. What a crazy industry! Don’t get me started…
But back to the point: are you absolutely sure that your delivered water jugs are 100% safe? Are you sure that your Watsons brand actually is from Watsons? Are you sure the jugs are properly made plastic, or that the water is actually from its source? With all the environmental exposures we deal with, why not have some control over this one aspect and get a filter instead?
Last week I wrote how brown foods are better than white foods, in general terms of health and prevention of diabetes. I wanted today to mention another similar rule: pure white is not a natural color in food. I’m always a bit queasy at these local markets that have huge open bins full of pure white wheat flower, almond paste, mountain root (山药）and other common flours. I’m darn sure that none of these were pure white in nature, so clearly they’ve all been whitened. That’s not automatically a terrible thing, but there certainly is nothing healthier about altering these foods just because the consumer mistakenly thinks whiter is purer or healthier — which it definitely is not.
Pistachios are a wonderfully healthy nut, full of healthy, cholesterol-lowering oils and antioxidants. But one uniquely Chinese trait is to bleach the majority of pistachios on the market, as many consumers believe the cleaner, whiter look is more appealing than the original. While the hydrogen peroxide bleach may not by itself be unhealthy, the bleaching certainly removes some of the vitamins such as B1, as well as antioxidant phytochemicals. So please do your body a favor and don’t buy the pure white pistachios with the dull colors; pay a bit more for the slightly darker shell which has the original green nut and deep red/purplish skin.
The same concept applies to mushrooms; local markets are filled with preternaturally, almost luminescent white mushrooms, which again are an obvious sign of unneeded whitening. A mushroom should not naturally be shiny white, like a piece of printer paper; it should be ivory or darker. Some of you may remember the entertaining story in 2010 about a Chinese primary care student who tested store-bought mushrooms and found that 90% had used a fluorescent whitening agent which was considered “not edible”. Maybe not dangerous, but certainly not needed — and given the chronic uncertainties of food safety, why take the risk at all?
Food safety is a chronic concern for everyone in China, but perhaps one of the silver linings is increased awareness of proper food handling. For example, I am now much more cautious about my choices of plastics due to the many Chinese news stories about plastics, from chemicals leaching out of cheaply made restaurant takeaway boxes to “endocrine disruptors” and Bisphenol A (BPA) in children’s drinking cups and bottles. These stories really got me to look closely at my environment, and my family decided at first to use only PE (polyethylene)-rated plastic wrap and plastic containers for leftovers. We then decided maybe that wasn’t good enough, and we’ve slowly converted to glass-only containers for leftovers. This eliminates the plastics issue, is safe to microwave, and also is a sounder environmental choice as glass is much easier to recycle than plastics. All the large supermarkets in Beijing now carry glass containers for sale.
I mention all this because I am concerned that we all are bombarded in our daily environment with potentially toxic chemicals from what we eat, breathe and drink; and I feel we should do everything we can to minimize the potential risks. Plastics, especially BPA, are a clear example of ubiquitous objects which research suggests may carry unintended health effects such as infertility, cancers, heart disease and diabetes. The research isn’t conclusive but I feel it is concerning enough to take action, based on the “precautionary principle”, which states that there is a responsibility to intervene and protect the public from exposure to harm where scientific investigation discovers a plausible risk in the course of having screened for other suspected causes. Also, there is an official position paper from 2009 by the US Endocrine Society which recommends much less exposure to BPA and other “endocrine-disrupting agents”.
With this in mind, some simple things we all can do at home include:
- Switch all your plastic food containers to glass
- Only use plastic cling wrap that says PE on the label.
- With any type of plastic cling wrap, always minimize contact of the plastic with the food to minimize leaching of chemicals, and try not to microwave with the plastic on it. Especially don’t let the plastic sit on top of liquids.
- Always immediately transfer your restaurant leftovers into glass containers at home; many takeaway plastic containers leach dangerous chemicals into the foods. Vinegar, especially, can eat away at the plastic.
- Never reheat your leftovers or eat directly from the takeaway plastic containers, as the leaching effect is dramatically higher.
- If you choose to keep your leftovers in plastic, look closely at the Plastic Coding System (that triangle on the bottom with a number from 1-7 in the middle). It’s better to avoid numbers 3, 6 and 7 and safer to use numbers 1,2,4 or 5
- Try to minimize eating canned food, as the plastic linings also could leach into the food.
Chopsticks hygiene is another big issue in China, both from food safety and environmental angles. When choosing a restaurant, plastic or metal chopsticks are much safer than the reuseable wooden ones, which are very difficult to completely wash of all bacteria and viruses (the same goes for your home’s wooden cutting boards and cooking utensils). Disposable wood chopsticks are far more hygenic but they carry an enormous burden on the environment. My favorite preference is to use my own portable metal chopsticks which unscrew in the middle and collapse into a nice small box to carry around. I now use this exclusively with my lunches at work. I got mine at Muji, but you can find these at many stores.
To sum up, these environmental precautions can be healthy for yourself and your family as well as the environment.