China: Don’t Drink The Water Don’t Breathe The Air, Don’t Eat The Food And Don’t Wear The Shoes

I hate stories like this.

I can remember the first time I went to the Russian Far East around ten years ago. I landed in Vladivostok and was picked up at the airport by a driver who my law firm’s Russian specialist assured me would take good care of me. The driver came with his own bodyguard/friend, and the two of them were quick to show me they each had baseball bats — yes, real wood baseball bats. Do not ask me how they got them in Vladivostok or why they needed real baseball bats. It was only on my subsequent January trip to Vladivostok that I was arrested and then had to hole up in a hotel in Magadan with no heat. But I digress.

Anyway, on the trip from the airport to downtown Vlad, I was all eyes and what I noticed were countless abandoned factories, many of them with huge holding ponds filled with what were no doubt toxic chemicals.  Near as I could tell, none of these holding ponds had anything even resembling an impermeable lining to prevent seepage of the chemicals into the surrounding soil. And what typically surrounded these ponds now? Tomato farms, which my drivers (in broken English and Russian) explained were “very good.” For two solid weeks, I ate pretty much nothing but sturgeon and potatoes. Nobody could understand why I was turning down the only thing offered (the tomatoes!) with any color.

Which gets me to the whole point of this post. Time Magazine just did a rather sobering story, entitled, China’s Taste for Toxins, regarding toxins in China food:

Chinese shoppers are used to warnings about tainted food. According to a November report by the Asian Development Bank, food-borne disease affects 300 million Chinese per year, costing up to $14 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses. But a recent string of high-profile health scares involving toxic ingredients has consumers worried about more than a stomachache.

In Hong Kong, imports of freshwater fish from the mainland were halted in November for 18 days after officials discovered MALACHITE GREEN , a banned fungicide possibly linked to cancer, in samples of fish from local markets.

On Feb. 5, the Chinese government released a list of 10 of last year’s most egregious food-safety cases — everything from selling homemade beer in brand-name bottles to making edible gelatin from OLD LEATHER. The top spot went to a firm in Jiangsu province busted for adulterating its nationally sold nutritional supplement, supposedly made from silkworm chrysalis. The real ingredients? Dried pig’s blood and chicken feathers.

On Feb. 6, Chinese health officials ordered six kinds of lipstick from two Shantou-based companies — including a strawberry-flavored variety — pulled from stores after they were found to contain SUDAN RED, an industrial dye known to cause cancer in lab animals. The dye, used to color petrol and floor polish, has also shown up in some Chinese chili powders and eggs.

Tests by environmental group Greenpeace recently detected residue from banned PESTICIDES such as DDT in 4 out of 5 mainland-grown tangerines, strawberries and green vegetables bought in Hong Kong produce markets. One tangerine tested positive for 13 different pesticides.

I remember being in Korea, a few years ago when Korea was talking about (or maybe did) enacting a temporary ban on Chinese seafood after the third incident of finding lead pellets in fish stomachs, intentionally put there to add weight.

Fibre2fashion just did an article on how British customs has detained children’s shoes made in Wenzhou City because the shoes were found to contain “carcinogenic substances like naphthalene.”  The shoes will be sent back to Wenzhou (is anyone willing to bet they will not be re-sold?) or destroyed.

So what’s a conscientious Westerner to do?

My best advice is that until China starts enforcing food safety laws, don’t think about food safety. Just eat.

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