Skip to main content

How do you eat safely in China?

By Eunice Yoon, CNN
Click to play
Chemicals spark watermelon explosions
  • China has been hit by a series of food safety scandals in recent years
  • In latest scare, watermelons treated with too much fertilizer are bursting open in the fields
  • Concerned Chinese citizens are setting up organic food buying clubs
  • China
  • Food Safety

Beijing (CNN) -- I was out shopping for groceries the other day with a friend of mine who has been living in Beijing for over a decade. We stopped by the fruit section, and I automatically gravitated to the bright red apples that looked delicious sitting on the store shelf.

She immediately stepped in. "I choose the apples that are pock-marked and are slightly bitten up by bugs," she told me while replacing the apples in my basket. "I figure if the fruit is good enough for the insect, it's good enough for me."

In China, she told me, the most perfectly formed, most appetizing piece of fruit is the scariest of them all.

With so many food safety scandals in China, everyone seems to have a philosophy on how best to eat. Avoid seafood. Never eat meat from the local market. Don't eat Chinese branded dairy products including cakes.

Probably the best and most consistent piece of advice I have gotten is to diversify your diet. "Rotate your poisons," a food safety expert advised me. It's enough to make you paranoid about eating anything at all.

Fear over additives, antibiotics, fake foods, and dodgy practices has grabbed hold of consumers here, some of whom are taking matters into the own hands by forming organic food buying clubs.

The government has recently ramped up efforts to tighten regulations and root out food safety violators in a state-backed media campaign.

The latest food safety report? Watermelons so juiced up with growth-enhancing chemicals that the fruit bursts open in the field. The CCTV report noted that few fruit markets are willing to buy the melons because they could erupt in transit -- oh, and irritate the digestive system if you eat them.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chinese agricultural exports have grown significantly in the past decade with Japan, South East Asia, North America and the European Union all major customers. In February, the USDA said China's continued growth depended on three factors -- one of them being food safety conditions.

The World Health Organization's food safety official, Peter K. Ben Embarek, told me food safety is improving in China but more needs to be done.

"It's clear that the credibility of the system will suffer. The consumer will continue to lose confidence in Chinese products and consumers abroad will equally lose confidence in Chinese products," he said.

"And that will be unfair for all the producers and all the systems in place that are producing safe food in China."

Unfortunately, they get lost in the din of China's numerous food safety scandals.