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China’s Carnivorous Eating Habits Become Food for Debate

Times Staff Writer

Sherry Xia wants to start a revolution in China.

The vegetarian restaurant owner frets over this culture’s obsessive appetite for animals, including wild and even endangered creatures.

The former lawyer winces at the scorpions -- stingers still on -- silkworms and sparrow chicks-on-a-stick served up as snacks at street stalls, and the snakehead soup, peacocks and badgers offered in restaurants.

Then there are the more tame but, to her, still distasteful dishes, from dog and pigeon to pork lungs and solidified duck blood.

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Xia wants to see her country eat less meat and animal organs and concentrate on a more healthful vegetarian diet.

“China,” she says, “needs to enter the 21st century when it comes to its food.”

Xia isn’t the only one alarmed by the nation’s dietary habits. International experts and many Chinese are concerned after a rash of food safety scares -- such as SARS and phony milk powder, markets selling chemical-tainted bean sprouts and restaurants that spiked their dishes with opium poppies to keep customers coming back.

The SARS outbreaks of the last two winters drew international attention to China’s wild animal trade, with epidemiologists saying the respiratory disease may have come from civet cats, a species commonly eaten in southern China.

The sometimes fatal lung disease, which spread to 17 countries on five continents, has relented, but no one knows for how long -- or whether the virus for another potential outbreak might be lurking somewhere else in the Chinese diet.

“This is not going to go away,” said Jeff Gilbert, a World Health Organization researcher.

Although international health advocates welcome the government’s ban on eating and trading of wild animals in southern China’s Guangdong province and elsewhere, they say a greater challenge lies in changing traditional attitudes that consider nearly all living things as frying pan fodder.

China’s appetite for animals spans generations. In poor areas, residents have adapted their diet to whatever staples they can find, including cats, and even rats. Wealthy Chinese seek out bizarre and expensive dishes -- from peacocks to pangolins, a scaly relative of the anteater -- for their novelty. Others eat animal organs for their perceived medicinal benefits.

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“It’s a cultural thing, what people choose to eat,” said Julie Hall, the WHO’s SARS team leader in Beijing. “It’s a sensitive issue in China.”

Yet cuisine criticism has come from within China as well. This year, Beijing opened a Food Safety Office to investigate potentially harmful food sources, and the government has moved to consolidate its monitoring and enforcement of wild-animal farms nationwide.

The prospect of contracting SARS has alarmed some Chinese diners. Although vegetarianism is hardly new to China -- it has been a part of Buddhism for centuries -- Beijing had only one vegetarian restaurant in 2000. Now, nearly a dozen meatless venues have opened, frequented in part by former carnivores eager to change.

Likewise, in a growing “green” movement, hundreds of professional cooks have signed a manifesto pledging to convince 8 million fellow chefs throughout China to stop cooking rare animals.

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The move was inspired by Zhang Xingguo, a young chef who was fired by numerous restaurants for refusing to cook cranes and other wild beasts. Going door to door to convert other cooks, he was honored for his efforts with a vegetarian dinner this spring by animal rights activists.

“A kitchen without wild animals is a better place to work,” said Wang Zhong, a vegetarian chef and a follower of Zhang who used to cook snakes, pigeons and protected turtles. “It’s more emotionally healthy.”

A study by the China Wild Animal Protection Assn. found that scores of species of wild animals are used in Chinese cooking, including many that the government has declared endangered.

At the government-run Donghuamen night market in Beijing, stalls lighted by lanterns sell such snacks as seahorse, scorpion and snake-on-a-stick.

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With a shrug, vendor Zhang Zhongbin produced a can swarming with skittering scorpions and threw three into the fryer. “If foreigners don’t like them, don’t eat them,” he said. “You don’t understand, anyway.”

Some Chinese epidemiologists say the nation’s food cravings may go too far. A delicacy known as drunken shrimp -- dipped in alcohol and eaten alive once the head is pinched off -- illustrates the potential danger.

The shrimp “carry parasites that are dangerous if you eat them raw,” said Zu Shuxian, a professor at Anhui Medical University near Shanghai. “People need to be careful.”

He said many Chinese believe that wild beasts are free of growth chemicals presumably fed to domesticated animals. “They think this will improve their health,” he said. “Asked why she eats domestic cats, an elderly woman explained: ‘Winter is coming. I need to eat something furry.’ ”

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The WHO is working with the Chinese government to enact new health procedures to prevent another epidemic. The U.S. also is planning a joint program to study emerging infectious diseases and the handling of wild animals, said an embassy official in Beijing.

“We’ve improved communication with the Chinese, but we have to keep an open mind,” said Hall, the WHO official. “We may not eat dogs or cats, but we do eat raw oysters. We just shouldn’t pass judgment.... What we need is more research.”

Liu Tong agrees that one diner’s delicacy may be another’s indigestion.

He manages a Beijing restaurant, called Getting Stronger From the Pot, which serves more than 20 types of animal sex organs that he says aid virility.

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“It’s just a matter of changing minds,” Liu said. “Animal organs are not as disgusting as you think. The Chinese have been eating them ever since the Qing Dynasty. If you ate one, I guarantee you’d like it.”

Liu pointed to American milk products, which many Chinese find unappetizing. “I used to think the cheese on pizza was disgusting,” he said. “But once I tried it, I liked it.”

With the origin of SARS still a mystery, restaurants like Sherry Xia’s vegetarian Lotus in Moonlight are expected to thrive. Manager Zhao Gang says the healthy food environment convinced him to give up meat for good.

When his neighbors recently cut down some trees, orphaning several sparrow chicks, Zhao went to the rescue. “We nursed the injured ones back to health,” he said. “Before I became a vegetarian, I might have just played around with those birds.”

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Or, he admitted with a sheepish grin, even eaten them.

But even Xia knows that change comes slowly in China. She wonders whether the vegetarianism will catch on in the nation’s rural areas. And even in modern Beijing, many tofu-eating diners still puff cigarettes while they eat.

Xia took down a “No Smoking” sign when business plummeted: “I can only change one of China’s bad habits at a time.”


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