Living in China? What do you do about food safety/pollution?

Just now I opened my latest ZGBriefs China news digest and found: “Rat meat and Chinese food safety” and “20 million taps (and not a drop to drink)”. Right as I sat to down to write this post I also checked my Weixin (微信 – a Chinese social media thing). At the top of my feed was a post about someone encountering “gutter oil” 地沟油 at lunch. Gutter oil comes from the kitchen slop that restaurants dump down the nearest manhole. Some enterprising (desperate?) soul scoops it out and skims off the oil, which he sells to restaurants and street vendors. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Or they drive around at night collecting it in barrels from the restaurants directly (I’ve seen that, too). And these aren’t the worst Chinese food safety examples I can think of; they’re just the ones that happen to be immediately on hand as I write this. This is truly just the muculent tip of a putrescent iceberg.

Why am I bringing this up? I don’t want a blog full of expat whining. But I got this e-mail a few days ago from a couple who’s been in China for three months:

Hello Joel!
[…] I’m living with my husband in a town in the middle of nowhere called Neixiang (Hunan Province) we’d had tons of shocking experiences here… and now we’re mainly concern about what food is safe to eat.

I’m not talking about eating cat or dog, but eating safe and clean. After reading news about food scandals in China we became more and more afraid of buying food on the streets and even at super markets.

If you have time, could you please tell us your experience with Chinese food brands and give us some advice about what brands has more quality standards than others?

How would you answer? If you live or lived in China, what specific things do you do to make your food safer?

Here’s what I replied with (plus some links)…

Other than spending tons of money and eating only imported products, I don’t know if it’s possible to eat safe and clean in China (and outside China, safe and clean is really just an illusion anyway, but that’s another topic). We’re less stringent than a lot of other expats, and I don’t think what we’re doing makes it safe and clean, but at least it’s something.

Fruit & veggies: We wash all our fruit and vegetables really well.

Milk/dairy: Our girls drink/drank imported milk and formula for their first two years. We drink the major domestic brands, but not because we think they’re necessarily safe.

Meat: Some meat vendors in vegetable markets are “certified” (so they claim, usually by displaying posters and/or certificates on the walls). We get our chicken at Metro 麦德龙 (a bulk import store, cheaper than regular import stores), but the beef and pork there is still too expensive. So we’re eating “certified” vegetable market pork and beef while still looking for better options. We also eat less meat than we did in North America.

Packaged/bottled products: We don’t usually buy packaged products like bottles of vinegar or soy milk from the tiny window shops (小卖部) or traditional vegetable markets (菜市场), because things are more likely to be fake. In our first year our teacher pointed out some details of things we’d bought: labels glued on crooked and printed in slightly lower quality, caps were just plugs instead of factory sealed screw caps, etc. Packaged stuff has better chances at a supermarket.

Street food: We don’t eat tons of street food (about once a week for me).

Water: Our drinking water at home comes in big blue bottles, like an office water cooler. At least there’s a chance that it’s better than the tap water (and it tastes way better). During our first week in Qingdao I asked a convenience store owner if we could buy the blue bottles from them. She said we didn’t need them, that we could just drink the tap water. When I balked, she said, well, children shouldn’t drink the tap water, they have to drink bottled water, but for adults it’s fine. We went across the parking lot to the other little convenience store and got the blue bottles.

Air: We didn’t buy an air purifier; they’re prohibitively expensive. We made our own for way cheaper. We use the China Air Quality Index app to keep track of the pollution levels (though you hardly need it; it’s obvious when the API is over 150), and on really bad days we try to keep our daughters inside. I also googled for pictures of house plants that are supposedly good for the air, and got dozens of a kind in the plant market that looked similar (not scientific, I know, but I like the green anyway, plus they’re cheap). Most importantly as far as air quality is concerned, we left Tianjin (next to Beijing) for Qingdao. Short of building pollution domes over your life like some international schools, you can’t fight the bad air. Your options: wear uncomfortable and expensive high-tech masks, live and work under a (literal) bubble, embrace an early death, or leave. We left. Sort of. And we use DIY air purifiers at home.

Being in China means choosing to ingest and absorb all kinds garbage. There’s no avoiding it, there’s just lessening it. There’s a joke floating around online that when a Chinese person dies if you flatten their body you’ll get the entire Periodic Table of Elements. Our first year in Tianjin, back before the Olympics when restaurant place settings didn’t come shrink wrapped with your meal, our Chinese teachers would obsessively wipe out every cup, bowl and plate before eating with them. What did they know that we didn’t? So don’t forget to ask (delicately!) your Chinese coworkers, waiban, students, etc. what they do about food safety and pollution. They aren’t unaware.

P.S. – Not exactly the kind of food safety issue we’ve been talking about, but still, this dumpling chef doesn’t mess around:

7 thoughts on “Living in China? What do you do about food safety/pollution?”

  1. Here are a few things we do (though who knows if they do any good … ) Although it’s a long list, it feels woefully inadequate.

    1. Absolutely agree that a Chinese friend/colleague who’s willing to talk about this stuff is invaluable. They’ll keep on top of all the latest food scandals.

    2. Don’t eat street food. Don’t eat cheap restaurant food. Picking restaurants where lots of locals go may count for something (at least you’re less likely to get food poisoning that way).

    3. Restaurants that are clean probably also have cleaner kitchens and higher food standards … or so I like to tell myself (although even some reputable chain restaurants were selling rat meat, or so go the rumors). Restaurants with windows into the kitchen seem to be becoming more common around here.

    4. We live in an area with lots of Korean immigrants/ethnic Koreans and buy meat from a Korean butcher. He believes in things like refrigeration. We also have a butcher shop that advertises green meat.

    5. Our local Walmart (used to be Trust Mart) sells some organic produce. Not sure if they’ve made it to the middle of nowhere yet though. We can also find some certified organic produce elsewhere. The Korean butcher sells lettuce, for example, and has a sign up showing the organic certification.

    6. Practically speaking we buy most of our produce from the little shops in our neighborhood. We soak produce in water and then scrub or agitate if possible, and peel whatever we can (including things like apples and cucumbers that we probably wouldn’t peel at home). Recent US talk is that the water method is as good as any other (vinegar, vegetable washes, etc.) for removing pesticides.

    7. Don’t buy vegetables that look too good (i.e. tomatoes that are bright red all over, oranges that are perfectly orange, etc.)

    8. I like to think that foreign brands and foreign supermarkets apply the same standards they do in their home countries, although there have been some enough scandals involving foreign brands in the three years that we’ve been here that I’m not so sure this is actually true. Foreign supermarkets that exist somewhere in our city include Carrefour (French), Tesco (British), Metro (German), and Walmart (American).

    9. You can buy certified organic eggs/free range eggs pretty easily even in the smaller shops here, although they’re much more expensive. My friend says Ge Ge Dan is a trustworthy brand for eggs.

    10. You can also buy some organic dried goods (beans, millet, etc.) at some grocery stores here. They’re prepackaged and not always kept with the non-organic versions.

    11. Oil: Arowana is supposed to be a good brand. For peanut oil, the one that says 5-S first pressing across the front is good. Arowana also makes flour though no one has actually recommended the flour to me.

    12. Water: I’ve been told to buy Wahaha. We can get it delivered in 5 gallon bottles. My friend’s dog had surgery and the vet told her to only give the dog Wahaha water, although none of us really know why. We actually brought back our own water filter last time we were home and use it for water we’ll be boiling/cooking with.

    13: Vinegar: shake the bottle and see if the foam lasts or immediately goes away. You want one where the foam lasts.

    14. If the price looks too good to be true, it probably is. At least at the low end of the pricing scale, you get what you pay for.

    15. Organic = 有机 Green food is not quite the same as organic food but I no longer recall the difference between the two. I believe the standards for organic are higher than the standards for green.

    16: Milk: I agree about buying imported for regular milk drinking. I’m not sure if there are any major brands of Chinese milk that haven’t had some major scandal associated with them in the past 4 years.

    17: Rice: don’t buy from open bins. Don’t buy the cheapest brands. We can now buy Dongbei (northeast) Green rice.

    18: Flour: also don’t buy from open bins. (We avoid this in general anyway because open bin food seems more bug prone.)

    19. Pray before you eat …

  2. Katie – you bring up so many things I’d forgotten to mention. Like stay away from produce that looks too perfect… I’d add also beware of bananas and watermelon that are unnaturally large and on the verge of splitting open. I’ve had some watermelons that split open when I just barely touched a blade to them, like they were just waiting to pop. And bananas are routinely split along the seams. There was a story a while back about a farmer who lost his whole watermelon crop because he put too much of whatever chemical it is on them, and they grew too big too fast and split open in his field. Of course, if we start telling stories there’d be no end… did you see photos of the glow-in-the-dark pork?

    Good advice, too, about generally avoiding the cheapest anything in China, especially food. The low end of the price range here either means will not work, will break immediately, or will not be healthy.

    But I’d never heard about shaking the vinegar bottles. How long have you been in China?

  3. Just over three years now.

    Apparently more foam = more organic content in the vinegar, which is a good thing (organic in the biological sense, not the organic food sense)

    I missed the glow-in-the-dark pork. I’ll have to track that one down.

  4. I bought meat from the Hui butcher in the local wet market. She cut it straight from the carcass. Cooked well done, I’m sure that’s as safe as you can reasonably get unless you are raising the animals yourself.

    I stopped eating strawberries – they are impossible to clean.

    Apples need scrubbing with a bit of dish soap that will break down the wax on the skin, as some pesticides bond to hydrocarbons. Or be Chinese and just peel the apple before you eat it.

    I chose not to eat any seafood or fish. Water pollution is too much of a problem.

  5. Here’s my little contribution to the discussion! :)

    Fruits and veggies – Just cook them really well. There is a reason why most people don’t eat raw vegetables. But beyond that, there is also an art to picking fruits and vegetables from the market. You are looking for firmness, shape, color, and size. Ask someone if you aren’t sure what is good for cooking or eating, because it really is an art.

    Milk/dairy – We buy our milk online from Taobao. Comes in big rectangular cartons (not the little bags). The milk we buy seems to last longer too. Our experience has shown that the Sanyuan or Suki brands are the best.

    Meat – Well, again, like the Chinese – don’t eat too much. Use a little in your meals instead of platefuls. Also, find a butcher you trust. Develop a relationship and don’t forget to smile. If you were cutting meat all day and getting animal blood all over your hands, you’d probably appreciate a smile.

    Bottled products – Always get a famous brand name that you have constant access to. There are so many different kinds of sauces and oils that you really do best by choosing a product and sticking with it. Even though my wife is Chinese, we still don’t deviate all that much, just because when you switch brands, you don’t know if they are an upstart or if the oil will work well with your cooking.

    Street food – Avoid grilled mutton if you care at all about your bowels. If you don’t, it’s an awesome snack. Also, avoid malatang (hot and spicy boiled vegetable in peanut sauce) dives unless you want to risk the cook not boiling the water enough. However, if you can find a malatang place that you don’t have a problem with, it’s generally a very healthy alternative to most other cheap food.

    Water – Everyone gets their water from these dudes who roll around from neighborhood to neighborhood. Your neighborhood has one. Just ask your neighbor where they get their water. It’s safe (generally), and if it isn’t, it’s because you’ve put your bottle in the sun all day or your man has made a mistake (which has never happened to me in almost 10 years). Just don’t drink the tap. If you boil it… I’d still avoid using boiled water as a constant. I only use boiled water sometimes for tea as a drink, but your water machine should have a switch for hot water – I’d recommend always using that.

    Air – I have a lot of long-term friends in China who have purchased air purifiers really cheap (under 2000 RMB); they are worthy investments, but not required. Just make sure you don’t go out for long periods of time when the air is between 300-500+, unless you have to. I’ve heard pu’er tea helps, but I have no proof whatsoever.

    The key is to experiment – find what works for you. I would add one final note – if you are trying to lose weight or stay healthy, don’t eat a lot of restaurant food. Learn how to make simple dishes, and make a vegetable dish with a little meat with a bowl of rice, and you should be good to go. Restaurant food is meant to be a delicacy, not a staple.

  6. Food: This probably happens in the States, too, but apart from everything already mentioned, inspect to see if your strawberries are red the whole way around. Normally, the seeds will stick out in color, but if not, they may have been picked early and sprayed with chemicals that make the fruit all red.

    Air: My wife and I just bought a couple masks at, but we didn’t get stylish ones. We bought a couple that will actually cut down on the pollution getting in through our noses/mouths. We were recommended this by Dr. Richard Saint Cyr (, or at who actually just tweeted about Health Tips to Keep You Illness-Free in China ( and Pollution Masks For Children: A Review (

    Thank you for the tips, Joel.

Leave a Reply!