Living with food scares in China

Woman with baby outside children's hospital in Beijing, after China raised the number of children hospitalised after drinking tainted milk to nearly 47,000.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The stories that are in the news this week all kind of tie together in the same place. Whether it's the economy or politics, everything seems to wind up squarely in consumers' laps -- both here and overseas. Today the Chinese government ordered all domestic milk products made before mid-September taken off store shelves. Beijing's trying to get to the root of the latest consumer scandal over there, foods being contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine. It's one thing to read about what's happening, it's entirely another to be living it. From Shanghai, Marketplace's Scott Tong has this entry from his reporter's notebook.


Scott Tong: The playground in our apartment complex is the main gathering place for a very international crowd.

And when our three kids tear around with their friends from Finland, Brazil and Japan, it's not always in English. Meanwhile, we the parents trade stories about going local in China. Have you explored this alley yet? Or that new dumpling joint? Certainly some of us are more adventurous than others, especially with food.
But the toxic milk scare changes everything.

Erica Willert: I threw out my orange juice and apple juice that was local.

That's Erica Willert of St. Louis.

Willert: I threw out my salt, I don't know why, just salt came to mind. This week I bought all imported meats. And I did tell my children please do not drink any of the milk at school.

The point is, no one knows just how bad this melamine crisis will get. Already, the dangerous chemical has turned up in non-dairy products, like coffee and candy. Jocelyn Lemmila is from Columbus, Ohio.

Jocelyn Lemmila: We can't drink water from the tap. So we buy the big bottled water. Every time I drink water from there, I think, "do I know how the water got in here and if it's actually what it says on the label?" And yeah that's risky, but so are half the other things we're buying off the shelves. So you just don't trust anything any more.

Like most expats in China, Lemmila switched to imported milk from New Zealand or Australia. It costs twice as much.

Lemmila:
I personally don't want to buy imported products. But when things like this happen, I get scared back in my shell.

Lemmila has been in China for about two years, like us. But the longer-term veterans remind us that this just happens in a developing country. You either deal with it or leave. Dorte Bang Andersen of Denmark lived through a previous toxic milk scare four years ago. And the deadly SARS virus.

Dorte Bang Andersen: I have been here for nine years. I am definitely not surprised any more. I mean, they freaked me out when we had the SARS. I think after that, they cannot surprise me any more.

And she says, we wealthy foreigners can afford to buy imported milk. A billion locals can't.

Andersen: So many Chinese people, they are living in this. We are not more special than the Chinese people.

In the long run for China, this disaster may force the government to finally get tough about food safety.

My neighbor Wilson Cheng of San Francisco drops off his daughter at the bus stop.

Wilson Cheng: Personally, I think this is a good thing. Just like SARS, it makes Hong Kong a lot cleaner. I think this time it will make the food a lot safer for China. It will from milk, spread to other food products. It just speeds up the process.

But we are talking about our children's' health. So, Erica Willert and the rest of us expatriates take as many precautions as we can. And then we cross our fingers.

Willert: You go to the restaurants, and you eat the local food, you breath the air, and you hope for the best.

A bit of dark humor helps, too. The other day at a birthday party, Victor's Dad said he'll be drinking more beer, since the supply chain is more secure than milk. And Sammy's mom just assumes China will take a few years off her life, one way or another. So when tainted food happens, it falls within expectations.

In Shanghai, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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