Spacemen's diet hard to stomach

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2012, 12:00am


While there are plenty of unknowns involved in being launched into space, at least astronauts can take comfort in knowing the food is among the best their nation has to offer.

Yet the tremendous effort that goes into quality control on space missions - from what type of feed is given to the fish astronauts will eventually eat to the medical history of the cows that supply their milk - only serves as a bitter reminder to some mainlanders, who feel the authorities have failed to ensure basic food safety for the public. According to a mainland media report, authorities control almost every detail of the food supply for astronauts. Each manned space flight costs billions of yuan and having an astronaut falling ill because of a stomach bug could have severe consequences on the mission.

Despite national pride in Beijing's progress with its space programme, however, some mainlanders are frustrated, even angry at what they say is the government's refusal to take public food safety as seriously.

Online reports on astronauts' food generally receive more clicks and comments than stories about the first woman astronaut or the fact that the Shenzhou IX spacecraft, which is scheduled to launch on Saturday, will perform the country's first manned space docking.

The story has revealed one of the big divides on the mainland. While the government has enough money and resources to send astronauts into space, it fails to allocate enough to provide for the basic needs of people.

A special division of the People's Liberation Army guards the astronauts' food supply, according to the report by The Beijing News. They have put up barbed wire around areas near the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Gansu province and turned them into farms.

Civilians are prohibited but security is not the only concern. The 'food guardians' say that human activities, such as driving cars, will increase pollution in the vicinity of the farms so they do almost everything by hand, from sowing to harvesting.

Large fish stocks, including silver carp, are reared in reservoirs. The soldiers are not allowed to use man-made feed produced by large factories out of fear harmful chemicals might be transferred from the fish to the astronauts. The fish eat whatever they find in nature.

Dairy farms take pains to purify the 'space' milk, according to the report. As the use of antibiotics and other medicine is an inevitable mainstay of the cattle industry, the cows the programme uses must be quarantined for a month before they can be milked. They are not given any drugs during this period to ensure the milk is as clean as possible. As for pork, soldiers are not allowed to use industrial feed. They must produce all the corn and wheat the pigs are fed, and every pig is carefully examined from head to tail before being slaughtered to ensure their meat has not been accidentally tainted by other sources.

Such details have set off fierce debate online. The news article received millions of clicks, with more than 22,000 comments on, one of the nation's biggest portals.

'When will the government pay attention to the food on my dish?', one Sina user from Henan province asked. 'If we can't feel safe about our food, how can we feel proud of our country?' another user from Guangdong wrote.

Pollution has wiped out most wild fish in rivers on the mainland. Each year the government must release billions of artificially hatched baby fish, but their flesh is often then tainted by heavy metals and chemicals.

The public lost much of its faith in the dairy industry after the exposure in 2008 of farmers' practice of adulterating milk with melamine, an industrial additive, to pass protein-content tests. At least six babies died and 300,000 were made ill after being fed formula made from tainted milk powder. Illegal additives are also often found in pork.