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Food from China scares some, tantalizes others

Times Staff Writers

Surrounded by fruits and vegetables from around the world, Annie Rong dug diligently through a tall pile of Chinese ginger roots in the produce section of an Asian supermarket in Monterey Park.

Tossing a full bag into her cart, the 71-year-old immigrant from southern China said that nothing, not even news that imported ginger from her native country was believed to be contaminated, would stop her from eating the spicy root.

“I only ever eat small amounts of ginger, so even if it’s gone bad, it’s still not that big a deal,” Rong said, dismissing the warnings. “At this rate, what will there be left that’s OK to eat? People say fish is bad, produce is bad. Why don’t we just avoid food entirely?”

Unlike grocery shoppers elsewhere, it would be nearly impossible for San Gabriel Valley residents like Rong to give up Chinese foods. Immigrants such as Rong eat their native foods almost every day and shop at the dozens of Asian supermarkets in cities like Alhambra, Monterey Park and San Gabriel, where shelves are stocked full of Chinese soy sauces and dried noodles.

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It’s one of the reasons recent news of contaminated Chinese imports is being met with a collective shrug. In a culture in which food is so central to everyday life, many view the controversy in terms of politics and economics, rather than health.

“I’m not making excuses for the products that tested poorly, but I think the reports create a lot of unnecessary fear in the public,” said Philip Young, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, who says he still swears by preserved egg and fermented tofu from China. “The anti-Chinese hysteria really bothers me. I always joke, if the food in China was so bad, there wouldn’t be 1.3 billion Chinese.”

But health officials say the hazards pose a serious threat to consumers.

The controversy began in March when thousands of dogs and cats in the U.S. fell ill from pet food containing Chinese ingredients. In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an alert on Chinese catfish, shrimp and eel, saying they were contaminated with carcinogens and antibiotics. And late last month, the California Dept. of Public Health warned that fresh ginger from China tested positive for pesticides that aren’t approved for the plant.

This, coupled with recalls of toothpaste, tires and toys, has sullied the image of China, one of the world’s leading exporters. Some companies are proudly labeling their products “Not Made in China,” and lawmakers and media pundits continue to mount rhetoric against China and its exports.

Southern California’s two biggest ports are major entry points for Chinese food. Some of the food is distributed around the nation, but a lot of it stays in California.

In 2006, nearly 60,500 tons of food were shipped into California from China, according to a Times analysis of data from the Port Import Export Reporting Service. About 75%, or 46,200 tons, was stocked in Southern California. Popular shipped items include frozen foods, canned fruits and sauces.

Stories about problems with Chinese products are nothing new to many Chinese Americans -- and many said they keep careful tabs on what they buy.

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But they also take the reports with a grain of salt.

If anyone needs to be scared, they say, it’s people in China.

A Chinese government watchdog released a report last month saying 99% of food exported to the U.S. met Chinese quality standards, while nearly a fifth of domestically sold food failed to meet standards.

“Some people say that if vegetables from China look too clean, too shiny, then they’re suspect, probably full of chemicals,” said Sun Fu Zheng, 40, of San Gabriel. “But crackers, noodles, snacks, that kind of stuff, if it’s in a supermarket, it should be OK since it’s been through customs and supermarkets’ cleanliness standards.”

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But not everyone is confident.

Eggs and canned foods from China are off Jessica Zhang’s grocery list for the time being. The Monterey Park resident and Chinese immigrant said she used to buy Chinese foods all the time, but now tries to avoid it.

“I’m worried about some of the food because I don’t know what’s in it anymore,” said Zhang, 56. “I have to worry about my health, but if something tastes good, I sometimes still want to buy it.”

None of the customers -- Asian or American -- at Dong Ting Chun Restaurant in San Gabriel are suspicious of the Hunan dishes served there, said manager Morgan Zhao.

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Even though the restaurant only uses ingredients from America, Zhao said food from China tends to be safer and more satisfying than American food.

“Food is very important to the Chinese people, so we tend to take it more seriously,” Zhao said. “Our food tends to be cleaner, whether it’s from China, Taiwan or Hong Kong. We take better care of it there.”

And while Zhao said he will never be too afraid to eat food from China, he admits he’s a little more nervous and careful about what he consumes.

“Of course some things from China will have problems, but the problems are extravagantly exaggerated,” Zhao said. “We should keep an eye out for unsafe foods, but we can’t make a blanket statement that all food from China is in bad shape.”

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Grocers in the community say the negative news has had little impact on business, with shoppers continuing to buy foods like farmed tilapia from China. In fact, the bulk of goods in the markets originate from China, including snacks, canned vegetables and bottled sauces, employees say.

“Every aisle here is stocked with stuff from China,” Hui Xia Lei, a worker at Hong Kong Supermarket in Monterey Park said, gesturing at stacks of fruit jellies and pickled bamboo shoots.

Some see a political motive behind the food warnings.

“The U.S. just wants to apply pressure on China,” said Sam Wong, a restaurant owner in Alhambra. “This is not a bad thing because the pressure will help the Chinese government improve quality and set standards.”

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As for the food itself, Wong said he has no qualms about buying Chinese goods.

“It’s all about how much you eat,” Wong, who was preparing oxtail accented with Chinese ginger. “If you eat enough ice cream it will probably kill you.”

Wong said he eats Chinese food almost every day and could never imagine giving up Chinese delicacies like wild ginseng from Yunnan province or bamboo mushrooms to make his favorite vegetarian dish, Buddha’s Delight. He has even tried locally-produced Chinese products like a Shanghai-style dried noodle. But he said nothing beats the one made in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

“It’s the best,” he said. “You can’t match the texture when you cook it perfectly al dente.”

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david.pierson@latimes.com

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Still in demand

Despite concerns about the quality of some Chinese foods, many imported delicacies remain highly popular in Asian markets. Among the sought- after Chinese imports:

Soy sauce

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Vinegar

Dried noodles

Preserved egg

Fermented tofu

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Bamboo fungus

Wild ginseng

Source: Times reports

Los Angeles Times

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