Food Safety in China: The Basics

The hottest topic on my blog, apart from air pollution, is always food safety in China. The newspapers are filled almost daily with the latest scandal, or a repeat of old scandals, and it’s a legitimate question to wonder just what is safe to eat. I’d like to share my tips both as a doctor and as a 5-year veteran expat in Beijing.

Yogurt Helps Weight Loss

Dairy Products: the most disgusting food safety scandal, by far, involved the contaminated infant formula in 2008 which killed 6 children and sickened 300,000 others, many with permanent kidney disease. Unfortunately, since then, this melamine chemical has been rediscovered in a few dairy products, and thus all of China remains justifiably wary of the entire dairy industry.

If you have a newborn baby, the healthiest milk in any country remains breast milk, so it would be wonderful to breast feed for as long as possible. Otherwise, most doctors I know in Beijing would recommend only buying infant formulas imported from other countries, from the most reputable brands, as well as from the most famous stores. I would definitely not recommend getting formula or anything of consequence from, as the counterfeit industry is very large. As for regular milk products, again the trust issue is key. I think the American-owned Wondermilk brand of milks and yogurts is a good choice, as are the Green Yard brand and other local organic milks or imported boxes of milk. But don’t forget another option — soy milk! Making your own soy milk at home with a machine is a healthy, fun and fragrant way to start a family’s day. The best company is called Joyoung, and their machines can be found at almost all electronics stores for 300-400RMB. You can also buy simple machines to make your own yogurt, which is a very healthy food.


Fruits and Vegetables: Again, the main issue is trust: do you know exactly where this green veggie is from, and how it was made? If it’s from one of the handful of organic farms around Beijing and you’re comfortable with the farm’s practices, then that’s great. For most of us, this is an impractical or expensive option, so I prefer to buy organics as often as possible from the large internationally-run hypermarkets such as Carrefour, Metro, Walmart, Tesco and Auchan. I prefer organics not so much for the taste and quality, but more for their quality chain of ​production, traceability, and oversight by multiple governmental and organic agencies. In other words, you have a much better chance of getting healthy and safe produce from a heavily monitored farm than you would from a Shunyi corner market or farm. And make no mistake, you should be wary of getting produce from small farms in China, where pesticide, growth hormone and other chemical rates are enormous, not to mention very high rates of water pollution runoff.

No matter where you buy your produce, it remains crucial to wash them all very well, especially the leafy greens. If your ayi prepares your foods, it’s important that she is educated by you not only on proper food washing but also simple hygiene such as correct hand washing or not mixing raw meats and veggies on the same cutting tables. Take nothing for granted with your ayi! There are some food safety handouts online in Chinese and English from the World Health Organization which you can print out and show her; you can find them online at my blog here.


Meats and Fish: A diet rich in fish is beneficial at all ages, as fatty fishes are filled with nutritious omega 3, a crucial element for a child’s brain as well as for an adult’s heart. But finding any safe fish in China is a serious issue, as many local rivers and waterways are seriously polluted. I’m very happy with my recent discovery of Metro’s frozen food section, which has a large selection of fish from other countries, and whose quality (and price) is quite reasonable. As for meats, again I like organic meats at larger international markets, mostly again because they have their own, independent supply chains and traceability.

To sum up, we all need to be more careful here in order to ensure safe food for our families. But with a little extra knowledge, we can thrive just fine.

You can read more about food safety in my food safety archives


(This article was originally printed in Beijing Kids magazine, where I am a contributing editor. You can click here to read the rest of my BeijingKids “The Doc Is In” columns.)

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12 thoughts on “Food Safety in China: The Basics”

  1. This is another helpful post. Thanks in particular for the Joyoung recommendation — getting local product recommendations in English is often challenging. Any suggestions on a good yogurt maker? I have never made my own yogurt before and am vegan, so it would be especially nice if the yogurt maker could be used to make soy yogurt. Also if you have any suggestions on starting a soy yogurt culture without having to physically bring it back from the U.S. or similarly faraway place would be welcome.

    1. I’ve never made my own yogurt but I’ve heard many expats mention that, and that they really enjoy it — does anyone have ideas for Joe?

    2. I don’t understand why you would need to import yogourt culture – why can’t you use a bit of the locally-sold yogourt?

      1. As my original comment had stated, I was referring to soy yogurt, not dairy yogurt. I have not seen soy yogurt sold in China. If anyone has, please post the information. Thanks.

      2. Sorry, I had missed that (even though you mentioned “soy” several times”). I didn’t even know that soy yogurt existed. Is the same bacteria involved in making soy yogurt as for dairy yogurt?

        In old Beijing culture there is something called “dou zhi”, it’s basically fermented soy milk. Perhaps this could be a substitute for your soy yogurt – at least it would greatly impress the locals. 🙂

  2. Frozen fish? This is very much like junk food.
    The main aspect for healthiness of food is “time to mouth”, nothing beats a fish bought on a peasant market that is still alive when it arrives at home.
    You never know the environment the fish had been living in, but if is a living one at least you know that no preservatives have been added.

    I remember a recent article somewhere on the internet that residues of pesticides in supermarkets are higher than those on peasant markets.

    Greenpeace found banned pesticides on vegetables in supermarkets.

    Anyway, fruits and vegetables are much fresher on the peasant markets and they cost only a fraction of those in a supermarket. You may not be able to control the supply chain, but if you are a regular customer at at peasants market, you can at least establish somewhat of a personal relationsship with the trader, ensuring that he or she won’t give you any wrotten stuff.

      1. I completely agree — I would never recommend any freshwater fish from local Chinese sources. That’s why I prefer frozen fish from other parts of the world, especially from Metro hypermarket. And unlike Volker, I don’t think frozen fish is like junk food — properly frozen fish has the same exact health properties as fresh fish. I would never, ever prefer local Chinese “peasant market” fresh fish over frozen fish from Alaska, Japan, Norway…

      2. The good thing is that you can find fresh salmon from Norway in the better supermarkets here. Yes the cost is much higher than the locally-sourced freshwater fish at around 200-220 RMB/kg, but it’s actually on par with what the high-end supermarkets in California are charging for fresh salmon.

        By the way, salmon rocks – it’s a great source of the “good” fats, but doesn’t have the high levels of mercury of some other types of fish.

      3. First, if you don’t eat fresh fish / fresh food, you really miss something good in life … food is not only about calory and vitamins, but in the first place about quality of life.

        Second, there is no reason to believe that food is less contaminated just because it is imported.
        Just read a news from German television (German only): 9 of 10 (!) samples of salmon taken in German supermarkets had levels of germs that exceeded german national standards, in one case by the factor of 300 (!)

        Concerning food: keep is small. Industrial mass production and healthy food simply don’t fit together.

        Third, shipping food around the globe is not a sustainable living style. Too much energy consumption for shipping and cooling.

      4. Your points are all valid, but they still don’t address the main issue in China: what seafood is regarded by experts as safe to eat? It’s well known and discussed that virtually all China’s rivers are heavily polluted; runoff from farms is contaminating many farmed fish ponds all up and down the coast; many fish farms use chemicals…so again, what seafood in China is specially verified by independent food safety agencies to be generally safe? I love fish and praise its health choices, but no group has ever convinced me that any specific type of fish in China is generally safe…so convince me! Somebody please share some real data!

  3. Here is a link to an interview with an officer from the Shanghai FDA about food safety.

    Fish and other seafood products are specially important for the Shanghai market, the Shanghai FDA is doing a lot (21 mobile testing labs, 38800(!) test in 2005 in just one city) of testing according to standards in line with the WHO and other international organizations.

    I am quite familiar with the SFDA. Registration of drugs and medical products in China has become stricter than most other countries, including the EU.
    The S(State) FDA and the FDAs on local level have a workforce of more than 30000(!) people. Certainly they can’t test everything, but China is a higly regulated country, there are regulations in place and at least in the area of food and drug the authorities do a lot to enforce these regulations.

    No question, the only food I trust 100% is that grown on the farm of my Chinese mother-in-law.
    China has a frightening number of food scandals, but so have other countries.
    To single out Chinese food/fish as beeing specially unsafe is unfair to the honest farmers who are doing a hard job for low pay, and also unfair to the officers of the SFDA, who are under big pressure from the public.

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