Surviving in the land of food scandals

I thought I have seen it all. After almost four years working, living and eating in Beijing, I figured I had become more zen about food safety scandals.

After all, over the years, I have collected copious tips from my local friends about how to fight this “bao wei zhan” (battle to protect the gut), which I have religiously followed.

For instance, after the spate of news from 2009 onwards about fake eggs made from resin, artificial beef made from reconstituted pork, and lean pork treated with the steroid clenbutero, I diligently rotated my meat sources. It was the Korean beef store one week, Walmart supermarket the next, and then the organic pork store.

I even hunted around the Chaoyang and Haidian districts - which together are larger than the size of Singapore - for Muslim vendors selling Halal chicken.

This was after a Chinese friend earnestly told me: “It’s better to buy your food from someone with religious beliefs – they are less likely to 'shua shou duan' (use dirty tricks).”

But it wasn’t so straight-forward when it came to getting rid of chemicals, mercury, growth hormones and other dodgy substances that local vegetables and fruit reportedly contain nowadays.

“Soak your vegetables overnight with tap water and vinegar to get rid of the chemicals and mercury,” said my part-time helper, whom I have hired to cook food so I wouldn’t ingest too much “gutter oil” from restaurants.

I tried her advice for a few weeks until another friend sounded a warning on tap water.

“Much of Beijing’s tap water has excessive amounts of lead. Use filtered water and salt instead,” she said. So I complied, and my water bill doubled.

“Just plant your own organic vegetables, only then can you be sure you won’t be poisoned,” an academic advised.

So I drove two hours out to an organic vegetable farm in the suburbs that rented out small plots of land to city folk looking to grow chemical-free crops in the summer.

But my endeavour was quickly thwarted when a local farm hand told me that they would spray pesticides on the vegetables behind their customers’ backs.

So I started buying imported frozen vegetables. Also, whenever my family visited me from Singapore, I would make them haul everything from dried apricots to rice that was certified not to be genetically modified. My mother once busted the baggage weight limit by 15kg.

But I rationalised that this was worthwhile after the horrific episode of a watermelon exploding in my living room two years ago! The fruit had been sprayed with so much “fast-ripening” chemical that the top of it caved in and then the fruit exploded in my living room in a spectacular spray of grey goo.

Luckily, no one was injured though the incident scarred me and my family members so badly that we didn’t dare to eat any watermelon – let alone that shattered one – for a few weeks.

Still, after more than three years of paranoia and protecting the gut, it can get quite exhausting sometimes.

So, recently, I decided to just chill and follow the mantra of some Chinese netizens: “guo ren bai du bu jin” (Chinese people will not fall to a thousand poisons).

After all, even with all my exertions, I was still suffering food poisoning bouts at the same rate as when I first came to Beijing.

So I figured I should just let my Singaporean stomach – which was perhaps too sanitised – and immune system get acclimatised to, well, more local poisons.

But my “embrace-my-inner-toxins” spell lasted just a few months.

When a news report on Dec 23 in Beijing media cited a food safety researcher claiming that many Chinese sauces, vinegar and drinks all contain relatively high amounts of the cancer-causing plastic additive, plasticiser, I freaked out.

That was one area I never took precautions for.

Initially, I tried to comfort myself by noting that the authorities had not yet verified such reports. But my friends, especially those with young kids, were already having melt-downs. My friends and I thought that after the government banned Taiwanese food imports that carried high levels of plasticiser in June 2011, the issue would have been high on the authorities’ radar.

“How are we going to protect our kids from the food they eat?” fumed my Beijinger friend, who has a toddler.

This latest food scandal made me realise that there is no way I can keep up with the seemingly unending list of food items that might have higher risks of contamination. I decided to stick to buying only the products I knew were safe, even if it meant doubling the grocery bill or eating the same thing every week.

But it doesn’t mean one should deem it a losing battle and simply give up.

Over time, China’s food safety record could improve as the government takes tougher action. But for now, I am not going to take any chances for the sake of my family’s health.

So the dictum, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”, is out of the window again.

Now, I’ve started making a new long list of food items – soya sauce included – for the next unfortunate friend or relative coming to visit me.

So begins part two of the gut-protecting