When he learned that the 'beef' he had frequently ordered at a food stand was actually pork mixed with beef flavouring, student Wu Heng of Fudan University in Shanghai realised he had joined a long list of victims of substandard food on the mainland. In an effort to heighten public awareness and spur officials to take action, Wu launched a website last month chronicling food scandals since 2004. He hopes his effort has a similar effect as Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle, which so sickened US president Theodore Roosevelt with its details of the filthy meat-packing industry in 1906 that he was said to have thrown his breakfast sausage out of a window, starting a chain reaction that led to the founding of the US Food and Drug Administration in 1930.
How did you feel when you discovered what you had eaten was not beef?
Completely cheated, and I almost collapsed. Before that, I had thought the food scare was irrelevant to me. Baby formula laced with melamine is outrageous, but since I don't have a child, it doesn't affect me. But when I read an article in April that exposed fake beef in Guangdong and noted its differences with real beef, I painfully admitted what I'd been eating was the same kind of food. Coincidentally, days before the news came out, a classmate told me what should be beef in my favourite set meal didn't taste right. The scandal has left me with the sense that the battle has extended to my home and I am a victim. It was a frightening state of affairs - so many violations involving almost all kinds of food, and a slew of illicit firms using even toxic ingredients. I hope my work will wake people up to the fact that substandard or toxic foods are everywhere, and possibly in everything you eat, and that stronger public discontent will make officials tackle this long-term headache.
How did you collect thousands of news articles?
I solicited volunteers online. By the next day, 34 people had responded, of whom six were my friends. In the month that followed, we screened more than 2,100 reports from mainstream media, digging out data including the place of the incident, the name of the food and its risks. On June 17, my website, zccw.info, was launched. The project cost me only 200 yuan (HK$241), in buying the domain name and web space. Some of the reports were extremely awful. The most sickening case was about a workshop in Dongguan, Guangdong, that was using refined oil drawn from its cesspool, and pieces of sanitary wipes were found in the pit. Just imagining that the oil could make it to other markets such as Shanghai and be used by restaurants here, I almost vomited and didn't have lunch that day.
What does your website entail?
The website is named Zhi Chu Chuang Wai (meaning 'throw out of the window'), alluding to US president Roosevelt's action and people's attitudes in the face of food crises. There is a map of China with provinces coloured differently to signal the varying severity of food scares. Beijing, Guangdong and the eastern coastal provinces are in red because of the high frequencies of scandals. I guess it is because their media is more active and open, and there are larger populations and more food companies. I have found an anomaly from 2008 to 2010 - the number of scandals was on average only a third those of previous years. Friends working for state media told me they had received gag orders because of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. Visitors to our website can vote on the most awful scandals, and in September we will grant the Darwin Award of Chinese Food, similar to the Razzie Awards in Hollywood. The prize will be 1.40 yuan, which is a homonym of 'die together' in Chinese.
Which 'candidates' are front runners?
The cesspool oil, followed by the melamine scare. Next are the cases of thousands of pigs in Shanxi being raised in waste pits and fed rubbish, and of Fujian barbecue booths that served rotten chicken, duck and even cat meat, all of which had been dipped in industrial agents like formaldehyde. About 600 people have voted.
Any pessimistic comments so far?
Some people have concluded there seems to be no reliable food. My response is that knowing about the issue is the first step to resolving it. The full picture should be worse, as some malpractices have not been revealed yet, and some have been covered up by local officials. I am optimistic as I have seen authorities carry out efficient raids on errant producers. However, I am curious as to why they cannot manage the industry strictly.
What do you suggest be done?
Punitive punishment, like that in the US; and introducing a system to make derelict officials accountable. Improving the industry has nothing to do with a country's ideology or religion; it should be done by the enforcement of laws.
What did you find in Ningxia?
From 2009 to last year, I volunteered as a schoolteacher in the backwater county of Xiji in Ningxia. What shocked me were Xiji's poor educational resources. When I wrote an idiom on the blackboard, one pupil said a character was wrong. I found his dictionary was a pirated version that had printed incorrect characters. Educational resources are unfairly allocated. Children in Ningxia have never been outside their counties, but their peers in Beijing or Shanghai may own a passport full of stamps.