It was a less than auspicious introduction to the Year of the Golden Pig.
People’s cellphones in China’s capital began buzzing recently with text messages warning of a deadly virus lurking in pork. Within days, sales of the Chinese staple had plummeted by two-thirds, according to the local media.
Beijing officials tried to quash the rumors. But people here remembered the government’s efforts to cover up the deadly SARS virus in 2003. And public confidence had been eroded further by a recent spate of food safety incidents that sent hundreds of people to the hospital.
Last week, nearly 300 employees of BYD Co., a Shanghai automaker, were hospitalized after eating undercooked kidney beans, according to the Chinese press.
A few months earlier, the government was forced to recall duck eggs and fish contaminated with toxic chemicals. And last summer, 87 people became seriously ill after eating undercooked snails at a Beijing restaurant.
“I do worry about food safety,” said Jiao, a 52-year-old physician, after purchasing a slab of jiang zhou zi, or preserved pork, at the bustling Chongwenmen market in Beijing. Jiao, who gave only her family name, said she avoided small markets and street peddlers because of sanitation concerns.
In an effort to reassure the public ahead of Feb. 18, the official launch of the New Year holiday, the Beijing government recently announced its own version of America’s terrorism alert system. If the government’s four-color warning goes from blue to red, the message is clear: Eat at your own risk. That level means at least 100 people have been sickened or 10 people have died from food poisoning, explained the official China Daily.
The government’s call to action also included the establishment of food safety SWAT teams and a sanitary grading system for hotels and restaurants.
Restoring confidence in China’s culinary cleanliness has taken on greater urgency with the approach of the 2008 Olympics, which will be held in Beijing.
But the statistics are daunting: The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 300 million mainlanders are affected by food poisoning annually. Food safety problems cost the Chinese economy as much as $13 billion a year in medical costs and lost productivity, according to a recent study by the Asian Development Bank, the World Health Organization and China’s State Food and Drug Administration.
Chris Spohr, an economist with the development bank’s Beijing office, said the government had undertaken a very “high-level push to improve food safety,” including the establishment of the State Food and Drug Administration in 2003.
“Things are showing up in the headlines,” he said. “To some degree, that reflects a greater vigilance and a greater openness to the problem.”
But Spohr said China still lacked a national food hygiene law.
At the Chongwenmen market, Cui Chuanzhen stopped to pick up a cup of dou jiang, a soy drink, on his way home from work.
The 37-year-old former television journalist was skeptical that tougher regulations would do much good, given the pressures of the marketplace.
Food producers don’t care about consumers’ health, said Cui, who heads the Europe-China Economic and Culture Cooperation Organization. “They only care about profits.”
Xu Tiedao, a 20-year-old fishmonger, said sales of fish and duck eggs took a hit after last fall’s food poisoning incidents. But the government has become more vigilant, he said, pointing to a sheaf of documents stapled to the wall next to a vat of squirming crabs and a tray of silvery belt fish.
“I think they’re doing a much better job since the accident of doing their inspections,” he said. “I think there’s no reason to worry.”
Outside the brightly lighted market, Lei Haiyuan, a 24-year-old print shop employee, shivered in the cold as she waited to pay for a glistening stick of tang hu lu, or syrup-covered fruit, from a vendor.
Did she worry about buying street food?
“Yes, I worry,” she said, before taking a frosty lick. “But it’s not like every food has got a problem.”