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.
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