It’s no secret that food safety is a huge problem in China right now. And while it may be a “secret”, it’s really no secret that the government gets its food from walled-off supply compounds where guaranteed organic produce is grown and shipped several times per week to the relevant departments. Perhaps in light of the recent high-profile food disasters, though, the government is feeling a little touchy, because this investigative report by Southern Weekend reporters was quickly deleted from their website. Luckily, Baidu cache has preserved a copy (at least for now). (h/t to Twitter users BendiLaowai, Kinablog and Vocui for the story and above links).
Also via BendiLaowai, a poignant reminder of the kind of food quality problems that exist for regular folks. Melamine milk parent Zhao Lianhai recently tweeted this message about another parent’s child who is still suffering from the contaminated milk scandal that covered the front pages several years ago:
“Zhou Xiong’s child Zhou Yizhe’s situation is very bad, one of the kidneys has already shriveled to the point that it’s totally gone, and the other required surgery, so the child is now living, but in pain. The kid’s future is also very unclear, I invite more people to pay attention to their case and to help out.”
What follows is a partial and very quick-and-dirty translation of the Southern Weekend article mentioned above. If I get time later, I will try to fill in more. Check the original Chinese when in doubt; as I said, I had to do a pretty rushed job on this one.
Two meter walls and iron railings on four sides, five PSB officers standing guard…if locals hadn’t informed us, it would have been very difficult to find this place, called the “big customs shack,” ((“海关大棚” any ideas on a better way to translate this?)) and it would have been even harder to figure out that it was a special storehouse of vegetables for Beijing Customs [officials]. The full name of the “big customs shack” is “Beijing Customs Vegetable Base and Countryside Social Club.” It covers over 200 mu of land in Beijing’s Shunyi district.
Insiders said that the base has been working with Beijing Customs for more than ten years, and that vegetables from here are only provided to Beijing Customs. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday a truck from Beijing Customs comes and takes away produce. Each load consists of at least 1000 jin of vegetables. The “big customs shack” is only one of many bases that provide the government with a special supply of food, and according to what a Southern Weekend reporter has learned, Customs isn’t the only department with a base in Beijing’s Shunyi District. Provincial-level governments across the country [also] have their own special food suppliers.
These special food products can be called truly “green” ((i.e. organic)) food, and their “safety” is paramount. On May 1, 2011, a Southern Weekend reporter penetrated the tight security of the “big customs shack”.
Entering the door and passing by some flower beds, you can see a reception area that looks exactly like a villa from the outside. Glass windows reach down to the ground, and a fish pond sits nearby. Green surrounds it on every side, and peach and pear trees are already ripe with fruit.
Inside the base, 64 rows of vegetable shacks are neatly arranged. By the door of each shack is a room for one worker, furnished with a simple bed and a stool. On the wall is a poster that reads: “Use safe intervals in the application of pesticides to produce vegetables.”
Between the two large shed groupings to the east and west, there is a drainage ditch that runs north-south and a path for freight trucks to pass through for shipping the vegetables. Aside from a few workers from the Northeast, the rest of the workers at the base are all local. Generally, one worker tends to four sheds and if they’re not there, the doors to the sheds are locked.
In the industry, it is frequently said that farmers don’t eat the crops they grow because the crops are grown using pesticides and chemical fertilizers. But the workers at the “big customs shack” slap their chests and guarantee, there’s definitely no problem [eating these vegetables], “we grew them all ourselves so relax!”
The Southern Weekend reporter saw “big customs shack workers picking cucumbers and eating them without washing them, or even disposing of the burrs, they just bit right in. ((This may be somewhat inaccurate as I know nothing about growing cucumbers; in any event the point here is that the workers were eating vegetables straight out of the ground without worrying about washing off any chemicals.))
To prevent chemical contamination, nearly all of the fertilizer [at the base] is organic fertilizer, the excrement of chickens, pigs, cows, and sheep. Even when pesticides are used, they are organic pesticides […] “What we plant are all green, environmentally harmless vegetables,” a person at the base told the Southern Weekend reporter. These vegetables include cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes, winter squash, string beans, cabbage, spinach, Chinese cabbage, and other common greens. “Whatever we plant, they (Beijing Customs officials) want.”
Special food supplies: Not just in Beijing.
Actually, the “big customs shack” is just one example of a special food supply [for the government]. These supply stores are not just in Beijing, and they aren’t just for fruits and vegetables, either.
One method for maintaining a special supply of food is that some departments own a special plot of land, and all the crops grown in this area are used in the dining areas of the government departments. A scholar who wished to remain anonymous told Southern Weekend that two years ago when he was eating a meal at the Shaanxi Supreme Court’s dining area, he was told by someone in the industry that the Court had its own official farm thirty kilometers outside of Xi’an, in Hu County. The farm had special managers who guaranteed that all the fruits and vegetables were completely free of contaminants and safe to eat.
The article continues with a number of other specific examples, a brief investigation into the history of special food supplies in the PRC, and a discussion of how suppliers of these special food centers can use that status to ensure their products sell for higher prices in the regular food markets, as well.