China’s Fake Food Epidemic: A Concern to Everyone

By Ho Yan Wong, 1/25/17

China’s fake food problem covers a wide range of food. It is a concern to everyone.

Ranging from tainted baby formulas to plastic rice, fake eggs to expired meat, recycled “cooking oil” to industrial “table salt,” Chinese fake food problems have been a concern for over a decade.

Recently, state-run newspaper Beijing News released an investigative news article revealing that 50 factories in Tianjin have been making fake condiments and seasonings for decades. As more people are studying, working or traveling in China, it becomes a concern to everyone, not limited to Chinese citizens.

What are the health impacts of fake food?

According to the article published by Beijing News, fake food seasonings contain industrial salts, heavy metals and many other harmful constituents.

“Ingesting any of those foods could have negative health impacts, particularly poisoning from toxins. In particular, heavy metals like lead are dangerous because they can cause brain damage,” said Elizabeth Abbey, assistant professor of health sciences at Whitworth University.

The Beijing News article quoted Professor Liu Shaowai from East China University of Science and Technology about other negative health impacts of consuming fake seasonings. “Industrial salt contains many impurities and harmful constituents. For instance, nitrites are carcinogenic. Also, heavy metals will damage livers and kidneys,” Liu said.

Having lived in Beijing since she was born, Wang Yao has been consuming Chinese food for the past 23 years. “I do feel worried. That’s why I have physical examination every half a year,” said Wang. “But there is no harmful impact seen on my body so far.”

Where to go for “real” food?

In China, small grocery stores and trucks on the side of roads sell fruits, vegetables and meat, but Wang does not buy there. “When I cook at home, I will go to large-scale supermarket to buy vegetables and meat with guaranteed food security,” Wang said.

When Wang dines out, she usually goes to more formal restaurants. “I feel more secured,” Wang said. She said she suggests people traveling to China visit review platforms such as Dianping to look for restaurants with better reviews.

Leo Cheang, a tourist to China in 2016, shared similar thought with Wang. “I usually go to the restaurants that many local residents go. It means they have reputation,” Cheang said.

“Now some restaurants will have a label telling consumers the origin of their ingredients,” he added.

Chinese seasonings are available to buy in the US as well.

Shall we eat street food?

Beside restaurants, there are a lot of mobile street food vendors on the roadsides, and a number of famous pedestrian streets packed with non-mobile street food stalls. While street food is one of the eating cultures in China, fake food can easily be found at these street food stalls.

“There are a lot of food stalls without licenses,” Cheang said. He suggested not to eat too much street food, or to only eat street food at non-mobile food stalls, which are much cleaner.

Having traveled to China a couple of times and having finished a one-semester exchange in Sichuan, Rose McKiernan shared how she chose street food. “There are places that my friends recommended and there is one near our class building that many students go to,” McKiernan said.

McKiernan added that usually the street food stalls near university campus are cleaner. “When I go travel to other places in the city, I don’t eat the street food,” McKiernan said.

Wang said she eats street food, although sometimes she bought fake food in street food stalls. “One time I bought a meat skewer on the street. The meat did not taste right. It was like mixing with powder and additives,” Wang said.

Street food is a prominent part of China’s food culture, but it is also a hotbed for fake food.

“I will not go to the places selling fake food again. If we can stop buying there and even report them, we can help improve the problem,” Wang said.

While public awareness towards fake food and food safety has increased in recent years and the China government has tried to revise its Food Safety Law in 2015, more has to be done to meet citizens and visitors’ standard.

“There should be more food regulations,” Cheang said.