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:
[...] 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 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.
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: