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.
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 taobao.com, 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.
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