PICTURES

China's tireless Food Fighter

His online portal collects and tracks reports of safety violations

Sometimes, it just takes one person. Or a small group of people who believe they can make a difference.

Individuals can and have made a significant impact on the world’s problems – and on individuals.

Rice contaminated by toxic metal. Milk containing melamine. Fake beef made from pork and chemicals.

China's food scandals have made headlines around the world as people cut corners to increase profits in a society that is rapidly industrialising and modernising.

Horror stories abound of violations, though none more shocking than the milk scandal of 2008, when melamine - a chemical used to make plastic - was added to milk to boost its protein content artificially. It destroyed vulnerable kidneys, killing six babies and making 300,000 ill.

"For the sake of money, these people will do anything," observes sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng from Renmin University. "The repeated occurrences of breach in product safety have led to a society where there is an almost total lack of trust."

The sheer scale, and heartless nature, of China's food-safety problem made solving it seem hopeless. But not to a young man in Shanghai.

In 2011, Mr Wu Heng, then a historical geography student at Fudan University, was shocked to read a news report detailing how rogue operators marinated pork in banned chemicals to pass off as beef, which costs more.

It dawned on him that the cheap and good 10-yuan (S$2) beef rice that he had been eating almost every day for half a year was, in fact, adulterated pork.

"My roommate had warned me it didn't taste like beef," recalls the now 28-year-old. "And that beef couldn't be that cheap. I didn't understand. I didn't know there could be such a thing as fake beef."

In June that same year, Mr Wu launched China's first food-safety monitoring website to keep a close watch on food sellers and manufacturers.

His Wikipedia-like portal allows users to upload reports of food-safety breaches, serving as a bad news aggregator of violations.

"No one can be above food safety in China," he says.

Within a year, the site accrued more than 3,000 such incidents, some going as far back as 2004.

They include exposing the prevalence of bugs in snacks made by a well-known Hunan firm and harmful chemicals in dumplings.

The website also includes a digital map, based on news reports of food-safety violations, that shows users at a glance how China's provinces fare on food safety.

Those that do well are coloured blue and feature smiley faces. The bad ones are highlighted in red with frowning faces.

After it was launched, the website drew an average of 10,000 hits a day.

In May and June last year, as a health scare broke out over pills containing excessive levels of chromium, which can damage vital organs, the number of hits soared to five million.

Mr Wu runs the portal at a low cost - with just over 1,000 yuan invested - thanks to a team of more than 30 volunteers whom he recruited online after posting a rallying cry on his personal blog.

"I wanted to do it alone initially. But after just one day trawling through the news, especially one on gutter oil in Guangdong, I lost my appetite and couldn't eat," he recalls, referring to a case of used cooking oil being collected from restaurant garbage and drains, reprocessed and sold cheaply.

"It was too gross. Most of the news was very disgusting. I knew I needed help for my project."

Mr Wu's site quickly became a one-stop platform for one of China's ugliest and most vexing problems in its race to modernity.

That has made it politically sensitive and risky for those targeted by complainants and those running it.

It was something that Mr Wu, who is now an information technology executive in Shanghai, was well aware of when he started the website. "It puts together all the negative news on one portal. I knew it would not please the government," he says.

Sure enough, the authorities came knocking in May last year. To his surprise, however, the nine Shanghai Food Safety Office officials were not only cordial, but they even offered him funding.

The bespectacled food fighter turned the offer down to keep the website's independence. But he knew he had to watch his words and move more carefully. He and his work had clearly appeared on the government's radar.

"There are many ways for a website to disappear in China," he says.

The bachelor is writing a book on food safety. He still oversees the site in his spare time, soldiering on in the determination that with enough information and education, his country can solve its food-safety problem.

That was why he named his website Throw It Out The Window (or zhi chu chuang wai), at www.zccw.info

It was inspired by a story he had read about former United States president Theodore Roosevelt, who was said to have thrown a sausage out a White House window after reading about abysmal meat-processing practices in Chicago.

Mr Roosevelt pushed for legislation in the early 1900s to overhaul the country's food safety, which eventually led to the forming of the US Food and Drug Administration.

"Many countries have managed to turn their food-safety problems around as their societies develop. So by this logic, China can do it too," says Mr Wu.

But it will take many years, he stresses. And when that day comes, he hopes his portal will serve as an archive for fellow citizens so that they can better understand their country.

"Sometimes, I think if I'm not living in this age, I would have problems believing the food- safety violations in China," he notes. "They are so disgusting it seems like something that happens only in fairy tales."

shpeh@sph.com.sg

Peh Shing Huei is the former China bureau chief of The Straits Times. His new book, When The Party Ends, on China’s rise and challenges after the Beijing Olympics, including food safety scandals, will be released this September.