Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:47 PM CST – China

Society

Food Safety

GOING PUBLIC

An academic NGO has published China’s first overview of the country’s ongoing food safety problems. Their aim is to give ordinary, scandal-weary Chinese information about what is, and isn’t, safe to eat

Chen Qiaoling (center) and her team at Yueyaduo Photo by dong jiexu

Yueyaduo members visit a restaurant kitchen to check its compliance with national food standards

When Chen Qiaoling first began to write China’s Compiled Food Safety Incidents, nearly everyone around her voiced their disapproval. Their reason for skepticism towards her project was unanimous: “Nobody will care to read it.”

Chen’s finished book, 26 chapters in length, took Chen, an MBA student at Tsinghua University, along with her research team, more than two years to finish. China’s Compiled Food Safety Incidents was published by Jilin University Press in March 2015 at the team’s own expense.

While only 200 hard copies of her work rolled off the presses, Chen put a digital version on the website of Yueyaduo, a grassroots food safety research center established by her team of some 20 volunteers, none of whom are food safety professionals.

“China has plenty of food-related research institutions, but food [safety] problems still abound,” Chen told NewsChina. “We’re just trying to find a solution to address these problems from an amateur’s point of view.”

Start-up

Yueyaduo came into being entirely by chance. In April 2012, when Tsinghua University was celebrating the 101st anniversary of its founding, Chen, then a second-year MBA student, found herself seated beside management graduate Chen Hongrong at a commemorative event. While making small talk about her job prospects, Chen Qiaoling mentioned that what motivated her to study at Tsinghua was her dream to buy a big apartment in Beijing, and a fancy car, after graduation.

Chen told NewsChina how her new acquaintance’s disappointment at hearing this was “palpable.” Instead of lauding her stated goals, Chen Hongrong remarked that “as a Tsinghua graduate, you should aim higher, have more spiritual pursuits, and take more social responsibility.”

The conversation quickly turned to China’s litany of environmental problems, and then on to food safety, with both parties agreeing that something needed to be done to safeguard public health.

Several months later, Chen Qiaoling suspended her studies at Tsinghua and established the Yueyaduo food safety research center with Chen Hongrong, who declined to be interviewed for this article. Their mission statement included a bid to raise public awareness of food safety while simultaneously providing solutions to farmers and food manufacturers who wanted to enhance the quality of their products.

As Yueyaduo’s first published study, China’s Compiled Food Safety Incidents is being touted as the first major overview of food safety scandals that have affected China’s consumers in recent years.

Chen initially aimed to write 50 chapters, but due to staff and funding shortages only managed to publish 26. Each chapter has a specific theme including the impact of water pollution on food, unhygienic food processing practices, and the fatal consequences of adulterating infant formula with chemicals – all themes corresponding to various public outcries in the last decade.

“I am fully aware that present efforts cannot solve these problems immediately,” Chen told the official Xinhua News Agency. “My hope is that this record will offer insight into what has happened, and where the dangers are.”

Chen said that she was inspired to continue with her research by the story of Harvey Wiley, who caught the attention of the American public and the US government through his research into fraudulent practices in the US food industry; research which contributed to the signing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and ultimately the creation of the US Food and Drug Administration.

“I think China needs someone like [Wiley],” Chen said.

Immersive

During their two-year research project, Chen and her team visited hundreds of food enterprises, farmers, street vendors and restaurants in nine Chinese provinces to compile a record of how many actually adhered to national food safety standards. Rather than seek to uncover new food scandals, the team’s goal was to better inform the Chinese public about their food choices.

Constant exposure to lax food standards has made Chen sensitive to the color, odor and ingredients used in everyday foods. Born into a rural household in Shandong Province, Chen has witnessed first-hand how the weak implementation and the non-adherence to nationally-set food standards, particularly in small-scale enterprises and on farms, is sustained by a combination of ignorance of these standards and a need to reduce costs.

“We realized that food safety is a complicated social problem,” Chen told the Chinese daily newspaper  Global Times. “It involves a number of issues, including soil and water pollution, agricultural produce standards, logistics and public honesty. From an economic perspective, we wanted to find out what motivates food manufacturers and farmers to tamper with food, and possibly provide them with solutions and incentives not to cheat consumers.”

Wang Xianzhi, a food safety expert with China’s Economy and Nation Weekly told NewsChina that in the summer of 2014, Chen Qiaoling brought a copy of her manuscript to him and asked for his advice about publishing it. Wang claims he only offered her one piece of advice. “Make sure every source of data is correct and reliable.”

“For college students to voluntarily set up this organization to raise the public’s awareness of food safety is something that deserves encouragement,” Wang added.

Chen’s team, most of whom are Tsinghua students, studied and reviewed all the media reports and academic papers that they had mentioned in their book to ensure its accuracy. However, while they comprehensively fact-checked all their research, not one of them expected that a book on food safety would gain widespread public and media attention.

To their surprise, on March 8, 2015 Cui Weiping, a professor with the Beijing Film Academy, mentioned China’s Compiled Food Safety Incidents on her microblog account, which sparked a surge in demand for copies. Shortly afterwards, Chen and her team were surprised to receive a telephone request for several hard copies of their book from China’s Food and Drug Administration, the country’s highest food standards authority.

Chen told NewsChina that China’s Compiled Food Safety Incidents is “just the beginning.” Her team is now preparing to publish a series of books related to food safety, including a study of China’s nascent organic food industry, until a direct platform linking food producers and consumers can be established in China.

Chen has only recently resumed her studies at Tsinghua, and is now trying to recoup some of the 100,000 yuan (US$16,140) of her own savings that she spent on her book. She told our reporter that she has made addressing China’s food safety problems, which she sees as being social rather than technical, a worthwhile long-term career goal.

“Previously, I was happy with the returns of my own work,” she said. “But now I am trying to create some social value in the area of food safety, even if mine are only minor steps.”

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