Fears of tainted rice turn delta shoppers to Hong Kong

Excessive levels of a dangerous heavy metal in staple grain adds possible new irritant to mainland-Hong Kong relationship

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 4:04am

Two weeks after learning nearly half the rice they buy from local markets may contain excessive levels of cadmium, a carcinogenic heavy metal, residents of the Pearl River Delta are starting to look for a solution or at least a way to avoid eating tainted rice.

Safe choices seem limited to changing a centuries-old habit of regarding rice as a staple food or buying rice in Hong Kong.

In February, the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Daily reported that more than 10,000 tonnes of cadmium-tainted rice from suppliers in Hunan were believed to have entered the Guangdong market since 2009. Delta authorities immediately denied the report, saying the tainted rice had been recalled by the Hunan suppliers and had never been sold in Guangdong.

On May 16, Guangzhou's Food and Drug Administration disclosed that it had checked 18 batches of rice between January and March and found cadmium levels in eight batches exceeded the national safety standard.

A week later, more tainted rice and rice products were found in Foshan . And excessive levels of cadmium have also been found in rice from neighbouring Guangxi and Jiangxi and from several major rice-growing regions across Guangdong.

Cadmium, an element used in battery production, can cause digestive system failure and other health problems.

Only a fool would eat tainted rice. However, delta residents face the problem of what to eat instead of the rice grown in polluted regions.

"My family tried eating rice from northeastern China for a few days but soon gave up," said He Huiying , a 26-year-old human resources clerk from Guangzhou. "I think the soil and water quality of remote northeastern China should be safe but their rice tastes so strange to us Cantonese - just like eating sticky gum."

Compared to rice grown in the south, she said, rice from the northeast tasted soft and glutinous and did not feel greasy when cooked. "Now we've turned to only buying rice from well-known brands imported from Thailand," He said. "We don't even dare to buy organic rice from southern China. We don't believe in anything grown in that tainted soil."

Experts, on television and in newspapers, have urged delta residents to eat less rice and more wheat-based steamed bread and noodles. They say no single food may be safe forever, and it is better to eat one brand of rice for a month and then switch to another brand.

"It's hard to accept the advice from an emotional point of view," He said. "We Cantonese have been eating rice since our forefathers and their forefathers. Now our government tells us, 'Hey, it's fine, just eat steamed bread'. The government spurs rapid economic development, and it leads to horrible pollution. Now they just let the common people pay the bill."

Many in the delta have long admired the Hong Kong government's approach to food safety. Mainland products found to be substandard, such as bean sauce, toothpaste and infant formula, soon appear on their shopping lists in Hong Kong.

But those lists are growing and contributing to tension between mainlanders and Hongkongers. To deter parallel traders, who buy goods in Hong Kong for sale across the border, Guangdong media have warned delta residents that purchasing too much rice in Hong Kong could land them in jail for breaking export restrictions.

Rice has been protected since the 1950s by a Hong Kong rule requiring a licence for the export of more than 15 kilos.

"Buying more than 15 kilograms of rice … and taking it home would be risking the wrath of the [Hong Kong] government. Yes, I know," said Liu Huilan , a Shenzhen operations manager. "But we can shop for packs of 30 pounds (13.6kg). That would be enough for my family for about two weeks." Liu said friends in Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen were interested in shopping for rice regularly in Hong Kong.

Guangdong microblogger Mao Shili said her husband told her "we should shop for rice in Hong Kong for our little son". Another internet user said: "If caught and jailed in Hong Kong, you could at least eat safe rice."