“I’m really worried about food safety,” said Li Suhua, 57, who is retired and was shopping for her family recently at a fruit and vegetable market. She said she comes to the market two or three hours before she starts cooking, to give herself time to soak leafy green vegetables to rid them of pesticides. As for meat, she said, “I’m even more worried. We haven’t eaten chicken for a long time, because I heard they gave hormones to chickens.”
“It’s really horrifying,” she said.
The safety of the food supply has been a public worry here since a 2008 scandal over melamine-tainted milk and infant formula that left six children dead from kidney damage and 300,000 people ill. Many new parents buy only imported milk powder for their children, or get infant formula online, or buy it during trips to Hong Kong or Japan.
Now, food safety has become a top priority for the Chinese government, which in the past was more concerned about food security — having enough for people to eat. Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who is slated to become prime minister in a leadership reshuffle next year, has taken charge of the campaign to improve the safety of food.
That, in turn, has sparked an aggressive kind of investigative reporting in the government-controlled media that is rarely applied to other aspects of society.
“The top leaders have attached more importance to food safety. That gives the media more freedom to report on it from different angles,” said Zheng Fengtian, an agribusiness professor and vice dean of Renmin University’s agriculture school. “The problem has always been there, but the media didn’t give it much attention before.”
To show its seriousness about the mounting list of problems, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported late last month that the government will offer rewards to informants who provide tip-offs about tainted food and has promised to protect the identity of the tipsters to guard against “revenge attacks.” According to a new edict, “Government departments at all levels must set up dedicated funds for a reward system for reporting on food safety,” Xinhua said.
A Web site called Throw it out the Window, which tracks food safety scandals across the country, has reported 494 cases of food contamination this year. The site, started in June by a fed-up 25-year-old graduate student and a group of 33 volunteers, has recorded 2,230 cases since 2004.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also has officials working on the ground in China, increasing inspections of Chinese firms that export products to the U.S. market and helping China build “technical capacity” to improve its food safety regime.