food safety

Food Safety Scandals: My Top Tips For Surviving in China

I’ve lived in Beijing almost five years now and often write about food safety issues in China — but the recent deluge of new scandals seems to be setting a new high (or low?). The latest involves a very scary story from Xinjiang, where at least 11 persons died two weekends ago from eating food dipped in vinegar contaminated with antifreeze (ethylene glycol). So here’s an unfortunate question that every Chinese person, whether local or expat, needs to ask themselves: what is safe to eat? I’d like to offer my “survival tips” on food safety for you, but first let’s review this latest slew of scandals. First is a May article from the New York Times which reviews the major issues. Here is an excerpt:

In recent weeks, China’s news media have reported sales of pork adulterated with the drug clenbuterol, which can cause heart palpitations; pork sold as beef after it was soaked in borax, a detergent additive; rice contaminated with cadmium, a heavy metal discharged by smelters; arsenic-laced soy sauce; popcorn and mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach; bean sprouts tainted with an animal antibiotic; and wine diluted with sugared water and chemicals.

Even eggs, seemingly sacrosanct in their shells, have turned out not to be eggs at all but man-made concoctions of chemicals, gelatin and paraffin. Instructions can be purchased online, the Chinese media reported.

Scandals are proliferating, in part, because producers operate in a cutthroat environment in which illegal additives are everywhere and cost-effective. Manufacturers calculate correctly that the odds of profiting from unsafe practices far exceed the odds of getting caught, experts say. China’s explosive growth has spawned nearly half a million food producers, the authorities say, and four-fifths of them employ 10 or fewer workers, making oversight difficult…

…“Basically, people now feel nothing is safe to eat,” said Sang Liwei, who directs the Beijing office of the Global Food Safety Forum, a private agency. “They don’t know what choices to make. They are really feeling very helpless.”

Chinese consumers may have their hands tied compared with their Western counterparts, but they are increasingly middle-class, well-educated and dismayed by their lack of protection. Even top officials are discomfited.

“All of these nasty cases of food-safety problems are enough to show that lack of integrity and moral decline have become a very serious problem,” Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told government officials in mid-April, according to The People’s Daily.

“We feel really ashamed,” Vice Premier Wang Qishan said at a meeting in March with legislators, according to Xinhua, the official news agency. “Just when the people have enough to feed themselves, we have this food-safety problem. Really embarrassing, this is really embarrassing for us.”

Second is a good article this week from Wired magazine which details the latest:

It’s the second vinegar scandal in China this month. Two weeks ago, an official of the association that oversees vinegar production in Shanxi province claimed that 95 percent of its highly regarded “aged” vinegar is dosed with industrial acid in order to cut fermentation time and turn out batches faster.

And those are just the latest. They follow the meat that glowed in the dark; the tainted buns; the exploding watermelons; the 40 tons of bean sprouts containing antibiotics and carcinogens; the rice contaminated with heavy metals; the mushrooms imbued with bleach; and the pork so dosed with banned stimulants that athletes attending an international meet in Shanghai had to be told which restaurants were safe to eat at.

Three years after the melamine-in-milk scandal that made 300,000 children sick, and two years after China passed its first-ever food safety law in response, the country is still struggling to keep its food supply healthy. The Chinese government recently cracked down, closing almost 5,000 food-producing businesses and arresting 2,000 people — but China experts say a needlessly complex bureaucracy and ferocious determination to turn a profit mean the contamination will keep coming. (On forums where expats chat, Westerners living in China wonder whether there is anything safe to eat.)

Many other websites are covering these stories, including the excellent website Corporate Social Responsibility in Asia which last week discussed this all-too-frequent issue. There is now even a local website at, mentioned on the excellent Eileen Eats blog, which is recording all food safety issues since 2004.

My Survival Tips For Food Safety

I could go on and on, but I’m getting hungry and need to research which next meal is least poisonous. OK, I’m a bit facetious, but honestly I am quite frustrated with all of these stories and find a little black humor is therapeutic. Anyway, here are my basic tips:

  • Run away, as fast as you can. OK, I’m kidding again — a little bit. Let’s assume that we all love what we do here and want to tough it out. So here are some real tips:
  • Try to eat organics, or GreenFood label. I still think buying organic food from a big hypermarket such as Carrefour or Walmart remains the best way to guarantee a reputable supply chain for produce and meats. And processed foods with the GreenFood certification at least have more supervision and less pesticides (theoretically) than non-labeled foods. Want to read more? I have many articles about organic foods.
  • Wash and peel! No matter where you buy it, you still need to wash leafy greens and peel things that should be peeled. There’s a program from the WHO called the Five Keys to Food Safety which I really like; they have many handouts in multiple languages which you can print out for your ayis.
  • Seafood — buyer beware. Of all food groups, I am most uncomfortable with seafood in China. I love sushi and have had many wonderful meals in Beijing with zero problems, but the fact remains that a large percentage of China’s waterways are polluted, and you simply do not know where your local fish is from, or what chemicals were added to them, or what pesticides leached into their fish ponds. And I’ve had many patients come in describing strange allergic reactions after eating fish, especially from crab and other shellfish. So how can you avoid this? As usual, always buy the freshest seafood from a popular market; try to avoid smaller seafood restaurants with slow turnover; or spend a little bit more for imported frozen fish (Alaskan or Norwegian salmon, for example).
  • Restaurants — stick to the biggest. The unfortunate truth is that the smallest mom-and-pop restaurants and street vendors simply may not have the money to offer the safest or freshest foods, nor is the hygiene in the kitchen as reliable. Also, you should look for those big resturant ratings that are supposed to be mandatory in the front windows; if it is not an A or B rating, perhaps you should reconsider eating there.
  • Markets — stick to the biggest. Do you see a pattern here? The big chains Walmart, Carrefour, Lotte and others all have their own distribution and cold-storage chains, so theoretically their produce and meats have a lot more safeguards and monitoring than, say, your rural street corner mom-and-pop market.
  • Milk — why not have soy instead? It was bad enough that 300,000 kids got ill and 6 died from that horrible 2008 melamine-in-milk scandal. But what really made this you’re-going-to-hell immoral were the multiple and continuing rediscoveries of melamine in different milk products since 2008. At least initially one could claim ignorance, but now everyone knows that melamine can kill children, and anyone still selling melamine and adding it to dairy products is just evil. So unfortunately, the dairy industry still needs to convince people their safety is impeccable. In the meantime, I think it’s another great excuse to promote soy milk, which I feel has better nutritional value and also is easier to digest for many. I’ve made my own soy milk for years and highly recommend this to any expat.
  • Buy a water filter for home and office. Yes, not even the water is safe. China Daily recently published a long article discussing the many safety issues from those large blue water jugs in every office. I’ve always preferred to use a water filter in my home from a company I’m familiar with. I’ve used a 1 gallon Brita water filter for many years, but I just “upgraded” to an under-the-sink system from Aquasana, which is always highly rated in consumer magazines and also is relatively inexpensive.

Any comments or suggestions? How do you safeguard your family’s meals? Please leave comments below!

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14 thoughts on “Food Safety Scandals: My Top Tips For Surviving in China”

  1. Hello Dr,

    You feel that filtered water from the tap is safer than bottled water?

    What about imported bottled water such as Evian? I prefer that over local bottled water which i read had some issues. Is it possible to get Evian in the traditional “jug” sizes?

    1. I definitely am much more confident in the quality of my Aquasana filtered water than any bottled water. There have been far too many scandals lately of fake water bottles, including Watsons. Plus a recent study in china found many problems inside the bottled water, including bacteria. How do you know your Evian hasn’t been roasting in the sun on a boat or the docks during import? I also have a major issue with the astounding environmental cost of shipping water across the world…

      1. Boiling is only to get rid of germs — all these water-filters should get at least 99% of all germs (the good ones). So no need to boil.

      2. Hi Scott,

        Boiling is typically used to sterilize water. Beijing’s water is heavily chlorinated/chloraminated so our tap water doesn’t have the same issues with bacterial contamination that might be found in other places. The filters are also third-party certified by UL/NSF to completely remove chlorine-resistant cysts such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia.

        So, as Dr. Saint Cyr wrote, there is no need to boil the water after filtration with the Aquasana system.

        Feel free to write or call if you have any other questions about our filter systems.

        Charlie Thomson
        400 000 8320

      3. if i purchase the aquasana filters in america, will they fit the plumbing fixtures in shanghai, china?

        or is there another advantage in making the purchase in china?

      4. Why is the China version of the Aquasana shower filter so much more epensive?

        USA Version
        Shower Filter – $84.99
        Item # AQ-4100

        China Version
        Premium Chloramine Shower Filter China
        Model AQ-4100CA

        Price ¥1100 = $173.6878

  2. We recently got an Aquasana filter for the kitchen (for drinking water) and shower. After the first shower you could feel, that your hair and skin is getting better! So we are happy with our decision and… concerned how much bad water we have drunk during our first year in Beijing. But in spite of all the informationen about the filter system – it still feels weird drinking tap water in Beijing and I really hope, that we are doing the right thing…especially for our son and the unborn baby inside me… Thanks by the way Dr. Saint Cyr for your blog and the important informations you share – although I’m getting sick sometimes while reading them;-) Need some mediation afterwards: I love to be in China…om!!

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