In honor of my special gastrointestinal adventures this past month I’m posting an article that was published in the New York Times yesterday about exploding watermelons in China.
The watermelons in Jiangsu province were given overdoses of growth hormones which caused them to explode after a bout of wet weather. China is no stranger to food safety scares lest we forget about the melamine milk/baby formula/pet food scandals of 2007 and 2008. On the other hand, China has declared food safety a national priority, using the media and countless government groups to attempt to monitor the millions of small crop farmers, distributors, restaurants and stalls.
Food in China is a serious business, as you can see from the many posts about food in Chengdu on our blog. But it is also important to realize that it is sadly not uncommon for people who handle food to cut corners to make a quick buck. We hear stories all the time of recycled oil in hot pot, chemical tainted glow-in-the-dark pork, and rice contaminated with heavy metals.
Eating locally grown Chinese produce often means that you put yourself in contact with highly toxic pesticides, human excrement and hormones. What’s more, that’s before the fruits and vegetables leave the plants. This was something that was really scary to me when I first started visiting in China, but at some point in time, maybe one day when I was really hungry, I stopped caring so much. Expats here in Chengdu are constantly sharing stories of “Sichuan belly” which, while sometimes due to the large amounts of oil used in the cooking, is often due to the unsanitary conditions of food. Having a funky stomach hits even the most cautious eaters here. It’s something you can’t really avoid.
I’d also like to take this time to remind our dear readers who are wondering how we live in such a place of despairing produce – every culture, at some point, went through a time of “developing hygiene” (a term I like to think I coined). Anyone care to have a gander at Sinclair’s “The Jungle”?
I think China is learning their lessons, albeit one media frenzy at a time. For such a large country with such a strong culture of home-cooking and fresh produce, maybe they’re learning it as fast as humanly possible. Already in my time in Chengdu I’ve noticed the growing availability of organically grown produce and dried goods at our local Carrefour. I’ve also noticed the growing number of local Chinese people who are hovering around these far pricier sections of the grocery store. People here are proud of the abundance in locally grown produce. You got to consider the history, for many people here, having food on the table is a reminder of how good things have become. Perhaps though, a heightened demand in less-toxic food will help things even more.
As an (almost) survivor of a pretty nasty stomach bug I must admit, I’m still not nearly as paranoid as I should be. I have friends and colleagues who are far better at using bleach solutions, only eating food that will peel, steering clear of anything dairy from China and making sure everything is boiled, fried or baked to the point that nothing evil lurking could possibly survive. I guess I’m now paying for my food safety sins. But hey, if anything will scare you into paying closer attention to your food, a watermelon exploding on your dinner table might just do the trick.