Could you imagine a place where soya sauce is made with human hair, collected from salons and hospitals?

Could you imagine a place where sewage can be used to manufacture cooking oil and red dye can be added into chili sauce and noodles?

A place where pigs and sheeps are fed with a banned steroid to gain in weight, while babies might suffer from malnutrition and even be caused to death by fake milk powder including a poisonous substance. 

That place unfortunately exists on Earth. 

South China Morning Post reported recently that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has once again warned athletes heading to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing to “exercise extreme caution” when eating meat in China, as it is likely to be contaminated with the steroid Clenbuterol, often called “lean meat powder.” WADA’s statement follows the German National Anti-Doping Agency warning its athletes to avoid Chinese meat at all costs and find alternatives while in China. 

According to Bloomberg, Clenbuterol has been added to animal feed for decades in China to induce weight gain and boost the proportion of muscle to fat. Despite Chinese authorities’ ban in 1997 and repeated prohibition, a 2015 study found that the use of Clenbuterol has remained widespread, especially in the pig farming industry. Athletes eating this kind of meat would produce a positive test result as a PED (performance-enhancing drug).

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Olympics refuted these reports by foreign media and “ensured the absolute safety of athletes”, said China Global Times. Whether food safety for the international athletes will be really assured remains unknown, but toxic food suffered by the Chinese people at large has been an unsolved alarming problem for decades.

Toxic food in China: Beyond imagination

Reuters reported that China’s authority discovered up to half a million illegal food safety violations in the first three quarters of 2016. This figure, though impressive, might be just a tip of the iceberg.

Continuous food scandals have been brought out to light in China. According to Forbes, in July 2008, sixteen infants in China’s Gansu Province were diagnosed with kidney stones. All of them had been fed milk powder that was later found to have been adulterated with melamine, a toxic industrial compound that can fool quality testing intended to measure protein content. Four months later, approximately 300,000 babies in China got sick due to the contaminated milk, and the kidney damage led to six fatalities. The chief culprit was found to be Sanlu Group, one of the largest dairy producers in China. Chinese state media reported that twenty percent of Chinese dairy firms probed were detected to have produced melamine-tainted formula.

The 2008 baby milk scare has rekindled memories of a 2004 baby formula tragedy. According to Reuters, in April 2004, at least 13 babies in Anhui province died after being fed fake milk powder with almost no nutritional value. About 190 other victims were dubbed “big headed babies” because their heads swell while their bodies become thinner due to malnutrition.

In the same year, another shocking food scandal occurred. A company in Hubei had been using human hair to produce powder and liquid ingredients for soya sauce manufacturers around the country, SCMP reported. A footage by China Central Television (CCTV) showed workers wearing masks using sticks to sort human hair taken from dirty bags, sometimes along with used cotton buds and even condoms. Without any cleaning, the hair was then put into a machine. Workers said that on average 10 tonnes of hair were used each day.

According to government officials in the CCTV report, human hair contains lead and arsenic, which are harmful to the liver, kidney and bloodstream, and can also cause cancer if consumed.

The appearance of numerous “cancer villages” around China is certainly not only linked to poisonous soya sauce. Chinese authorities in 2005 discovered a popular use of Sudan I red dye in food in many major Chinese cities, ranging from chili sauce to vegetables and noodles. 

In 2011, Chinese state media reported that 17 noodle makers in Dongguan city, Guangdong province were alleged to have included ink, industrial dyes, and paraffin wax in the manufacture of noodles normally made from sweet potatoes in order to lower costs. Workers from a company claimed that roughly 50 tons of apparently tainted starch noodles had been produced by the firm and had entered the market since the beginning of its business in February 2011.

In 2013, a video by Radio Free Asia went viral showing in excruciating detail the way cooking oil is made from garbage. As Washington Post described:

“Enterprising men and women will go through dumpsters, trash bins, gutters and even sewers, scooping out liquid or solid refuse that contains used oil or animal parts. Then they process that into cooking oil, which they sell at below-market rates to food vendors who use it to cook food that can make you extremely sick.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that in April 2012, after a five-month investigation, Chinese authorities uncovered a gutter oil production ring spanning 13 cities and over 100 people. The sting yielded 3,200 tons of oil made by boiling down the fat from rotten animal parts; and the black-market producers had already sold a stunning $1.6 million worth of their product, authorities estimated.

Just one month earlier, over 15,000 dead pigs had been found drifting down Huangpu River, a source of tap water nearby Shanghai. As reported by The Guardian, dead meat unfit for sale would be bought up by local pork dealers, who would then process it in illegal workshops, and re-introduce the products into the legal market.

One may think that the food safety issue only relates to cheap food sold in the streets or common restaurants, but a recent scandal has revealed that even food served in expensive places is not necessarily guaranteed. BBC reported that in 2019, a group of parents invited to a tree-planting ceremony at one of China’s most prestigious schools in Chengdu discovered rotten food in the canteen, including moldy bread, rotting meat, and seafood. Disgusted at what they saw, the parents posted photos to social media. 

The whole world suffers

In 2014, Reuters reported that Shanghai Husi Food Co. Ltd. supplied products containing expired meat to McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Burger King. The products were sold in various countries including Japan.

In this globalization era, contaminated food in China is able to poison people around the world. Statistics show that Chinese exports of agri-food commodities amounted to USD 64.83 billion in 2019, 85% higher than in 2005. According to The World Bank, Japan, Hong Kong, the United States, Korea and Thailand were the top importers of Chinese food products in 2019.

Trade allows toxic food from China to join the food supply chains of other countries, like in cases of Chinese fresh ginger containing a dangerous pesticide in the United States in 2007, Chinese-made dumplings tainted with the insecticide methamidophos in Japan in 2008, frozen Chinese strawberries contaminated with norovirus infecting over 11,000 children in Germany in 2012, and Chinese tinned peaches high in lead served in Australian hospitals in 2014.

In July 2007, a cargo of fresh ginger arrived at two dozen Albertson’s grocery stores in California and was put on shelves. Some days later, the ginger, which came from China, was found to contain a dangerous pesticide called Aldicarb, Wall Street Journal reported. Aldicarb is regarded as a health threat under certain conditions. According to the California Department of Public Health, symptoms of Aldicarb poisoning, including nausea, headaches and blurred vision, can appear within an hour of exposure. Higher levels can induce muscle spasms and difficulty breathing; at high doses, Aldicarb can be lethal.

Chinese ginger is widely used in American cuisine, from soups to stir fry to cookies and tea, and present in many U.S. grocery stores. Industry analysts say many U.S. companies opt to source in China to reduce costs but are reluctant to spend on vetting supply chains, Wall Street Journal added. American firms that buy Chinese-grown products often require such low prices that it isn’t practical for exporters and importers to run tests, claimed Clara Shih, president of Best Buy Produce International Inc. 

It should be noted that today, China still uses about 2.7 times more fertilizer and twice as much pesticide per hectare as the world average. Over 200 million Chinese farmers used about half a million tonnes of pesticides and 60 million tonnes of fertilizer every year.

Avoiding any products labeled “Made in China” unnecessarily saves someone from eating Chinese food. With most foods, companies are not required to label where ingredients come from, only where the food was packaged or processed, said CNN. That implies possibly a frozen dinner, for example, could have 20 different ingredients from 20 different countries, according to food analysts.

Food safety issue threatens the rule of CCP

The ancient Chinese saying goes, “For the Emperor, the people are everything; for the people, food is everything.” That suggests guaranteeing and promoting decent food policies should be a priority of any honest government. Yanzhong Huang, professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University once wrote on SCMP that over the past decade, food safety has also become a political issue and a test of the party-state’s capacity to rule.

A recent survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in China has revealed that the proportion of executives who agreed that food and water safety concerns were a significant challenge for multinational corporations trying to recruit and retain foreign workers in China increased from 28 to 36 percent over the 2016-2018 period. Indeed, environmental pollution has disabled Beijing to attract and retain top talent in financial services, preventing it from replacing Hong Kong as a global financial hub, said Ding Xueliang, a Hong Kong-based China scholar.

In its 2014 report, the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based non-governmental think tank, revealed that food safety and air and water pollution concerns were driving elites and wealthy Chinese overseas. A more recent survey showed 56 percent of Chinese millionaires with a net worth of over US$1.5 million declared they were considering leaving the country or had already done so. This loss of confidence among the country’s upper class raises concerns for China’s leadership, with departures implying both a brain drain and a damage in earning power, SCMP noted.

For the Chinese general public, those affected by food safety issues are typically voiceless. They have neither access to policy making nor ability to self-organize and protect their interests through state channels, said professor Yanzhong Huang from Seton Hall University. “For the people, food is everything,” so when their “everything” is in danger, there is a high possibility that the Chinese people will question not only the rule of individual leaders but also the legitimacy of the whole political regime. Xi Jinping acknowledged this menace while remarking in 2013 that, “If we do not do a good job in food safety, and continue to mishandle the issue, then people will ask whether our party is fit to rule China.”

Causes of toxic food in China

Whilst the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is well aware that the food safety problem threatens its ruling position, it has not advanced much in the improvement of food quality for long. 

A biography of Mao Zedong written by his personal physician reveals that in the 1950s, a food procurement department under the security apparatus to supply and inspect food for the Chinese leadership was established, with the help of Soviet advisors. Today, the prevalence of environmental pollution and contaminated food further fuel the parallel food system for the elite.

Under the tegong system, government officials and top executives of state-owned enterprises in China enjoy a special supply of organic foods from exclusive farms. Los Angeles Times once published a report titled “In China, what you eat tells who you are”, describing such a farm as follows: “At a glance, it is clear this is no run-of-the-mill farm: A 6-foot spiked fence hems the meticulously planted vegetables and security guards control a cantilevered gate that glides open only to select cars”… “a Chinese reporter sneaked inside and published a story about the farm producing organic food so clean [that] the cucumbers could be eaten directly from the vine.” 

Since Chinese high-ranked officials are exempted from contaminated food, they are less likely to care about the quality of the food served to the public. And food safety inspection might possibly turn ineffective due to corruption.

Another factor is in play. The Guardian reported experts saying that the counterfeiting problem in China was a result of its economic policy, which has motivated local provinces to pursue growth at all costs. Pirate manufacturers could even be shielded by provincial governments as long as they create profits and taxes. 

To make things worse, instead of promoting co-governance with industries and social groups, the CCP is increasingly suppressing social movements that appeal for environmental and food safety advancements. SCMP reported that China’s investigative reporters, who once played a pivotal role in exposing food and environment scandals, are increasingly endangered. Between 2011 and 2017, their numbers dropped by nearly half, from 334 to 175. 

In the case of rotting food found at a high school canteen in 2019, videos emerging on social media showed hundreds of parents protesting outside the school gates in anger and police using brute force against them. In one video, a group of policemen slammed a man against the ground. Another video showed parents clutching their eyes in pain, with some local news outlets saying police used pepper spray against them.

The CCP is often proud of hundreds of millions of people being “lifted out of poverty” under its leadership, yet their anxiety has shifted from food security to food safety. Lured by profit, sellers neglect the fact that their toxic food is killing customers sooner or later, just in the same way as many CCP officials are indifferent to the lives of their people. Successive laws and regulations addressing food safety problems issued over the past decades proved ineffective. 

Unlike laws, which impose hard rules, culture acts as a soft constraint. The law enforces the penalty after a crime has been committed, while culture, by nurturing morality, averts crimes before they take place. A society’s morality is often integrated in its culture.

China once had a virtuous and glorious traditional culture, which encompasses the compassion and salvation for all beings of Buddhism, the unity of heaven and humanity of Taoism, and benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness of Confucianism. But unfortunately, that precious culture has been virtually destroyed by the CCP throughout numerous bloody campaigns in its history. 

As the Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party put it:

“​​Traditional culture respects life; requiring the utmost care in handling anything that involves human life. The CCP urges that revolt is justifiable, and struggling against human beings is full of joy. In the name of “revolution”, the Party could murder and starve to death tens of millions of people. This has led people to devalue life, which then encourages the proliferation of fake and poisonous products in the market.

Producing poisonous foods has everything to do with the single-minded pursuit of material gain that comes in the wake of the destruction of the culture and consequent degeneration of human morality.

Authentic traditional culture measures the quality of human life on the basis of happiness from within rather than material comfort from without. [Han Yu (768–824), one of the eight great prose masters of the Tang and Song dynasties said,] “I would rather have no one blame me behind my back, than have someone praise me to my face; I would rather have peace in mind, than have comfort in body.” 

Tao Yuanming (365–427) lived in poverty, but he kept a joyful spirit and enjoyed as a pastime “picking asters beneath the eastern fence, gazing upon the Southern Mountain in the distance.””

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