Is It Safe To Eat? All The Food Safety Scandals From China
Although one-third of U.S. imports come from China, the country supplies less than 1% of America’s food. Throughout the past few decades, dozens of food scandals have appeared in China. The fears have prompted several myths, but unfortunately, many of the claims are true.
Exploding watermelons, deadly baby formula, and expired meat–all have been served to customers in China. Some have even been exported to other countries. Here are all of the true Chinese food safety scandals from the past two decades.
Powdered Ginger With Lead
In 2013, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods entered a lawsuit. They had unknowingly sold powdered ginger and candied plums that were contaminated with lead. Despite being labeled as organic, the brands were not regulated before going on the shelves.
According to the World Health Organization, lead contamination can injure the kidneys, blood pressure, and nervous system. “In China, there is booming agriculture, and even though there are some laws, there’s no enforcement,” said Michael Hansen, a national expert on food safety.
In 2011, China underwent a food safety scandal thanks to a growth hormone in watermelons. Agricultural worker Liu Mingsuo injected watermelons with forchlorfenuron, a growth hormone. When customers would try to cut it, the watermelon had such thin skin that it would “pop” open.
Despite this, China is still the tenth biggest watermelon exporter in the world. Other watermelon farmers argued against Mingsuo’s tactics, and they raised concerns that some agricultural businesses used cheap, unsafe growth hormones to save money. It’s unlikely that your watermelon will “explode” today.
Deadly Baby Formula
In 2008, more than 54,000 babies went to the hospital for kidney stones. The condition rarely appeared in infants, so Dr. Zhang Wei investigated what was happening. As it turned out, 22 baby formula companies had injected their milk with a toxic compound called melamine.
The scandal traced back to local farmers’ “protein powder” that they claimed would fill babies more. John Yasuda, an author on food safety in China, claims that the scandal resulted from companies’ growing demand for milk. Sadly, Chinese kids are still suffering from the effects of the scandal.
Selling Expired Meat
In 2014, many Chinese citizens lost faith in the country’s McDonald’s. According to reports, the supplier OSI sold expired meat to their restaurants. Pizza Hut and KFC, which also received food from OSI, cut ties with the company. But McDonald’s continued working with the supplier.
And it’s not just McDonald’s. In 2018, Chinese officials seized hundreds of pounds of expired meat from a frozen market. Some fish and beef also had their labels removed. Even years later, some Chinese citizens remain wary of restaurants that receive supplies from OSI.
Frying With Gutter Oil
“Stinky tofu” is a type of fermented tofu known for its strong odor. Although the food is a delicacy, it has a bad reputation in China. In 2003, a journalist discovered “black workshops” that used illegal chemicals or rotten food to give stinky tofu its black color. Manufacturers also fried the tofu in sewer water.
“Gutter oil,” as its called, is brought up from backstreet drains and used in frying oil. In 2017, restaurant staff in Zhejiang were arrested for cooking with gutter oil. Chinese media claim that gutter oil is popular in eateries that use chili oil.
In 2006, Chinese health officials discovered that the country exported over 40,000 tons of contaminated turbot. Farmers did not safely handle turbot, which is a flatfish from the Black Sea. According to some reports, manufacturers intentionally fed the fish banned chemicals.
The toxic chemical nitrofuran metabolin were found in at least 30 samples of fish. Other outlawed substances, such as enrofloxacin, malachite green, chloramphenicol, erythromycin, and ciprofloxacin, were also detected. One farmer claimed that “at least 99%” of the fish were chemically treated. That year, Beijing banned the sale of turbot.
Dyed Green Beans
In 2010, another food scandal swept through the Hunan province in China. The agriculture law enforcement team discovered that peddlers dyed dry soybeans to make them look like fresh green beans. Sellers soaked the soybeans in sodium pyrosulfite to make them look real.
Although a small amount of sodium pyrosulfite is safe, excessive amounts can damage the kidneys or liver. Real green beans take a while to cook and are more expensive, so some restaurants prefer to buy cheap alternatives. No reports of dyed green beans have surfaced since 2010.
Rat Meat Sold As Lamb
As a Chinese delicacy, mutton is in high demand. So it’s no surprise that sellers have created counterfeit meat and sold it as lamb. In 2013, police arrested 63 manufacturers for selling rat, mink, and fox as lamb. The sellers added red coloring and chemicals to make the meat look more like mutton.
Since the issue was so widespread, police in Zhejiang released a guide to help customers distinguish lamb from rat. Fake mutton has separate white and red stripes than may fall apart after it’s thawed.
China is the world’s second-largest exporter of beef. But in 2013, officials seized over 20,000 tons of illegal meat. The “beef” was actually made out of mink, fox, and rats. It was injected with water and illegal chemicals to look and taste more like beef.
In response, the police arrested 904 people for “meat-related offenses.” The counterfeit meat, some of which harbored dangerous levels of E. coli, was sold to marketplaces. Some were sold to restaurants and eventually poisoned customers. Fortunately, these incidents have nearly disappeared in the past seven years.
Pesticide Residue On Fruits And Vegetables
In the mid-2000s, concerns rose about the pesticide residue on Chinese produce. In 2006, Greenpeace tested fruits and vegetables from China. They found that only 30% had acceptable pesticide residue. The other 70% contained illegal pesticides such as DDTV, Lindane, and HCH.
In 2011, a study in Food Control determined that most Chinese produce had healthy pesticide levels. However, China continued to set strict guidelines on pesticide control. They have developed screening methods to test produce and established a database on acceptable pesticide control.
Pickled vegetables make popular snack foods in China. But in 2006, an international report stated that Sichuan’s pickles might have DDVP. That toxic chemical is known to cause diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps when ingested.
The reporter, Zhou Qing, said that some canned fish were being “preserved” with DDVP as well. He added that people from Sichuan don’t eat their own pickles; they export them to other provinces. Although this scandal hasn’t been widely reported, it’s still concerning for export countries.
Recycled Expired Food
In Wenzhou, China, recycled food has found a market. According to the Jiangnan Times, underground markets sell re-packaged expired food to consumers. In 2013, at least 5% of the packaged food sold in Wenzhou was recycled and likely expired.
According to police, manufacturers added preservatives and dyes to make the food look fresh. They unwrap, bleach, and repackage foods to sell them to grocery stores, and may also remove or replace the label so the store employees don’t know any better. Few reports about recycled food have surfaced since 2013.
Illegal Red Food Dye
Sudan I is a red food dye that is known to trigger allergies and contribute to cancer. In 1996, China outlawed the use of Sudan I, but that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from using it. In 2005, the red dye was found in Kentucky Fried Chicken, ketchup, and chili sauce from some Chinese companies.
Before 2005, the Chinese government was not equipped to manage all the food manufacturers who used the dye. In 2017, experts from New York found the dye in both local and imported goods. Watch out for Sudan I.
In 2007, the FDA found a chemical inside Chinese imported toothpaste that was not listed on the label. The compound, diethylene glycol (DEG), was a cheaper thickening agent than glycerin. Although DEG in toothpaste didn’t cause serious harm, it did kill Panamanian citizens the previous year when it was put in Chinese cold medicine.
In 2008, the FDA banned all imported toothpaste from China. Even so, Chinese brands are often sold at discount stores. Watch out for brands such as Cooldent, Dr. Cool, Everfresh, Superdent, Clean Rite, Oralmax Extreme, Oral Bright Fresh, Bright Max, and ShiR Fresh.
Parasitic Snail Meat
In Beijing, fried snails are a delicacy. But in 2006, at least 70 restaurant customers were diagnosed with angiostrongylus meningitis after eating fushouluo, a snail dish. According to experts, the Amazonian snails used were littered with a disease-causing parasite called Angiostrongylus cantonensis.
The scandal reappeared in 2019 when a five-inch-long tapeworm was found in a migrant worker’s brain. The man had been eating snails since 2004. Fortunately, China does not export many snail dishes; it imports them. But think twice before ordering fushouluo in Beijing.
Over the past 30 years, over 400 deaths and 800 hospitalizations occurred from poisonings in the Yunnan province of China. Scientists finally found the poisonous mushrooms responsible in 2012. Specifically, the mushrooms contained two different amino acids and one organic acid that was toxic.
The poisonings were given the name “Yunnan sudden death syndrome” and only occurred between June and August. The mushroom, known as “Little White,” is no longer being sold. After the research emerged, sudden deaths stopped in the Yunnan province.
Contaminated Pet Food
In 2007, the FDA reported a toxic amount of melamine in pet food. Melamine harms the kidneys and killed dozens of cats and dogs in the U.S. Experts found the chemical in imported wheat gluten from China.
Wheat gluten is a meat substitute found in many Asian dishes. When questioned, Chinese authorities and animal rights activists said that they were not aware of any contamination in pet food. The products were recalled, and the pet food crisis did not happen again.
For decades, the Chinese government has struggled to quell an illegal fake drug trade. In 2001, the country closed 1,300 factories that created counterfeit medications. Eleven years later, Chinese police seized $182 million in fake medicines.
According to police, some substances in the drugs are banned by the State Food and Drug Administration. These include hallucinogens and sedatives. Although China tightened its laws against counterfeit drugs in 2018, it continues to be a problem. Beware of fake drugs that could be exported from the country.
In 2008, over 500 Chinese people complained of nausea and abdominal pain after eating dumplings. Experts reported that the dumplings were tainted with a pesticide called methamidophos. Other toxic pesticides, like dichlorvos and parathion, were found in recalled dumplings.
But the issue didn’t end in 2008. In 2013, a factory worker was tried for injecting insecticide into frozen dumplings. In January 2020, pre-packaged Chinese pork dumplings brought the African swine fever to the Philippines. The company that shipped the dumplings, Wanchai Ferry, also exports many Chinese frozen foods.
Rice is China’s staple food–so it’s safe, right? Wrong, apparently. According to a 2011 report in China Economic Weekly, over 12 million tons of rice were contaminated with metal. Technological manufacturers caused pollution that sent cadmium, a heavy metal known to cause cancer, into farms.
China’s industrial pollution is nothing new. “Cancer villages,” which have a deadly pollution level, are growing throughout the country. One study noted that less than 10% of Chinese rice was free of metal. The takeaway? Don’t buy rice imported from China.
In 2019, a Chinese television exposé revealed a slaughterhouse that illegally sold unsafe pork. The butchers sold sick pork that had been infected with African swine fever and should have been destroyed. As far as reporters know, these pork products did not leave China.
A similar food safety concern arose in 2013. More than 16,000 dead pigs drifted down the Huangpu River, which is used for drinking water. The pigs had porcine circovirus and were discarded by local farmers. It’s no wonder why some people are wary of Chinese pork.
Pesticide-Filled Steamed Buns
Steamed buns–usually filled with beef or pork–are often pre-packaged and sold at convenience stores. In 2008, authorities found the pesticide Methamidophos inside steamed buns in Japan. The food had been imported from China.
Thousands of Japanese citizens complained of feeling ill after eating the buns, and at least ten people were hospitalized. China is the second-largest exporter for Japan behind the United States. This scare made people more wary of Chinese imported food, although steamed bun scares have not been reported since then.
Toxic Rice Noodles
In 2010, Chinese officials found a shocking amount of toxins in rice noodles. According to a Beijing newspaper, the noodles contained rotten grain and additives that could be toxic. Nearly 50 tons of contaminated noodles were shipped to families.
Although this food safety issue wasn’t widely reported, it sprouted some new rumors. One myth stated that fensi noodles were actually made from plastic, which has been disproven. Since the 2010 noodle incident, Chinese manufacturers have cracked down on food safety production.
Haggis is a traditional Scottish delicacy. Characterized as a savory pudding, it primarily consists of sheep’s pluck, which is a combination of its heart, liver, and lungs. Haggis is traditionally encased and cooked in the sheep’s own stomach, though in modern times artificial casings and puff pastry have been used.
The U.S. has banned the importation of haggis due to the fact that it contains sheep’s lung. All animal lungs are banned by the USDA since bodily fluids such as phlegm and stomach acid could enter the lungs during the slaughtering process.
Kinder Surprise or Kinder Eggs are a popular European candy consisting of a hollow chocolate egg that usually contains a small toy on the inside. Traditionally, the toy requires some minor assembly.
Kinder eggs were been banned in the U.S. for safety concerns in the 1930s, since children who weren’t careful ran the risk of choking on the toy inside while consuming the chocolate. Fortunately for fans, in 2017, Kinder Suprise eggs became available again in the US, because the chocolate and they toy are separate parts.
Sassafras is a tree native to the eastern U.S. Native Americans. Early settlers have long used it as an herbal supplement as well as in many recipes ranging from gumbos to tea. It is particularly popular for being the primary flavor of traditional root beer.
However, the FDA banned the use of sassafras bark or oil as a food flavoring or additive. In the mid-to-late 19th century, studies have shown that safrole, a major component of sassafras oil, contains high amounts of carcinogens that can pose a hazardous threat if consumed in high amounts.
Ackee is a fruit that hails from the same family as the lychee. Native to West Africa, Ackee is most commonly found and consumed in Jamaica and is featured in various Caribbean cuisines. Unfortunately, however, the U.S. maintains a ban on imports of ackee fruits and products.
Ackee is high in the toxin hypoglycin A, which diminishes in the edible portion of the fruit when it is fully ripened. The same can’t be said for the rind and the seeds of the fruit, which retain high concentrations of the toxins that can be hazardous if the fruit is not processed properly.
Casu marzu is a cheese native to the Italian region of Sardinia in the Mediterranean. The production of casu marzu is so alarming that it is not only banned in the U.S., but the European Union has outlawed it as well.
Casu marzu is a type of pecorino cheese that has been left out for cheese flies to lay their eggs in. Once the eggs hatch, thousands of maggots make their way around the cheese, digesting and breaking down the fats so that the cheese is fermented. Casu marzu aficionados eat the cheese with the maggots still crawling around. Only when the maggots have died is the cheese considered unconsumable.
Fugu is a Japanese pufferfish traditionally served as sashimi and featured in other Japanese cuisines. While it is considered a delicacy, fugu consumption is incredibly risky due to the fact that it is lethally poisonous. Fugu fish have high amounts of tetrodotoxin and if the fish isn’t properly prepared and rid of the toxins, there can be fatal consequences.
Fugu’s native Japan even has tight restrictions on its availability and while it isn’t necessarily banned in the U.S., there are very few restaurants where you can try it. The European Union went the safe route and has banned fugu sales altogether.
Beluga caviar is caviar comprised of the roe (fish eggs) of the beluga sturgeon, a fish native to the Caspian and Black Seas that is unrelated to the beluga whale. Beluga caviar is exclusive and incredibly expensive, with market prices reportedly starting at around $7,000.
In the early 2000s, the U.S. has banned imports of beluga caviar and other beluga products since the beluga sturgeon is listed internationally as an endangered species. Though these fish can live over 100 years, their populations have diminished considerably due to poaching and overharvesting. Because the producing counties failed to apply regulations on conservation efforts, trade with these regions has been suspended.
The mirabelle plum is a small, sweet plum primarily grown in the north-eastern region of France. The region has the ideal climate and soil composition of the mirabelle plum, which is why 80 percent of its global production comes from there.
What can be so bad about this adorable fruit? Well, nothing actually. But still, there’s a federal ban on import of the mirabelle plum since it has a “protected origin-destination,” according to some sources. This means that the FDA has a trade agreement with France to protect their market, which makes obtaining these little guys nearly impossible for Americans.
There is so much controversy around raw, unpasteurized milk in the U.S. but it isn’t completely illegal. Pro-raw milk constituents argue that there are many benefits to its consumption, but their detractors say that you also run the risk of ingesting potentially harmful microbes and bacteria.
As a result, half of America has a ban on unpasteurized milk but it isn’t necessarily that hard to get your hands on. There are laws that state you can get it directly from farmers, while some states allow its sale in stores so long as they are properly labeled to let the consumer know what they’re getting themselves into.
Absinthe used to be banned in the U.S. — sort of. As the 20th century came around, absinthe was believed to cause hallucinations and sometimes death. As a result, absinthe was banned for nearly 100 years.
The reason for this was because absinthe contained trace amounts of the toxic chemical thujone, which if ingested in high concentrations can lead to convulsions and delirium. But it wasn’t until modern-day scientists realized absinthe didn’t actually contain enough thujone to be fatal that it has become “legal” again. It was never technically illegal, but for some time most people weren’t aware of the technicalities surrounding its regulation to know this.
In 2007, the U.S. banned horse meat after it stripped funds for federal horse slaughter inspections, though that probably didn’t need to happen for horse meat consumption to come to a halt. Compared to other parts of the world, eating horse meat is taboo in a majority of the U.S. and many western countries.
Historically, horses have become regarded as companions and a necessary tool for warfare. Therefore eating horse is comparable to eating dog, which despite being unthinkable in America, some parts of the world also do. Still, horse meat is seen as a delicacy in some countries and some say that it’s healthier than eating beef.
Though foie gras isn’t banned all across the U.S., California, in particular, has a problem with it. Foie gras is a specially fattened goose or duck liver that is considered a French delicacy.
It is banned in California and its consumption is quite controversial — even in France — primarily on ethical grounds. Some foie gras producers are completely inhumane, as the ducks or geese are kept stationary in cages and force-fed through tubes multiple times a day to fatten their livers. However, there are more humane ways of producing foie gras, which is why it isn’t completely banned.
Edible bird nests are created by swiftlets whose saliva solidifies to create their nests. These nests have been harvested for human consumption, primarily in China, where it has been used in their cuisine for hundreds of years. Legend has it that regular consumption of these nests promotes good health and long life. The most popular way to consume it is in bird’s nest soup.
Swiftlets have since been determined an endangered species, which is why there are tight restrictions on bird nest consumption, even becoming rare — and therefore pretty expensive — in China. In addition to the environmental concerns, there are also worries over importing the avian flu through these nests.
In Florida, it is illegal to harvest Queen Conch, a large marine mollusk whose soft-bodied animal falls in the same category as clams and oysters. Despite its ban, the U.S. accounts for 80 percent of the world’s consumption of internationally traded queen conch that mostly comes from the Caribbean.
Queen conch primarily grows in shallow waters and coral reefs. That, combined with its slow maturation rate have made this animal susceptible to over-fishing and as a result, is considered an endangered species. Even though you can’t legally harvest it in Florida, you can still find other ways to get your hands on some imported conch.
Mangosteen is a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia, the fruits of which are harvested and coveted for their numerous health benefits. Until recently, mangosteen has been banned from import into the U.S. because there were concerns over introducing the Asian fruit fly into North America.
The ban on mangosteen imports has since been lifted, but the imports must undergo an irradiation process to ensure that no foreign insects or animals will make it into the country.
An ortolan is a tiny songbird whose average weight is only one ounce. Ortolans are primarily found in the warmer climates of Europe around the south of France, where their consumption is quite controversial since they’ve become a vulnerable species at the hands of poachers. Also, their capture and killing are considered by many to be cruel as they are kept in dark traps, gorged with grain to fatten up, then drowned in brandy which also marinates them before they are cooked.
It is apparently a ritual to eat these birds with a napkin covering your head to hide the fact that you are partaking in something considered very shameful.
The sale of Redfish, or red drum as it is known in some regions, has been banned in the U.S., with the exception of Mississippi. In the 1980s, chef Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun-style blackened redfish because so popular, that consumption of redfish surged and as a result, overfishing has nearly led to its extinction.
While you can fish for the red drum for personal use, you cannot fish for it in federal and most state waters and sell it for profit. This is in an attempt to regrow its population.
Sodium cyclamate is an artificial sweetener that is banned in the U.S., but oddly enough is completely legal and safe for consumption in most countries in the rest of the world.
In 1970, the FDA ordered a total ban on the use of sodium cyclamate because inconclusive research found that the sweetener had traces of carcinogens in it. Because it is safe to eat in other countries, there have been fruitless campaigns for U.S. agencies to reconsider its legality.
The Cadbury chocolate found everywhere in the United States is not the same as what is in England. The two versions aren’t manufactured by the same company and have entirely different recipes! Surprisingly, Hershey owns the rights to Cadbury’s U.S. production.
When Hershey’s bought the rights in the 1980s, the company banned the import of chocolate produced in the U.K. The two distinct forms of Cadbury have been hotly debated over the years. British loyalists swear there is a noticeable flavor difference between the chocolate they grew up and what they have tried in America.
Unpasteurized cheese, like unpasteurized milk, is banned in the United States. Imported cheese must adhere to strict guidelines, or it will not be sold in stores. Only cheese made with pasteurized milk, or ones aged 60 days, are allowed to cross the border.
The ban means that popular cheeses like brie or camembert cannot be sold in the in the country. That brie you’ve had at parties isn’t authentic! You’ll have to travel to Europe to experience the pure joy authentic cheese brings. Of course, you could also find a cheese smuggler to do the dirty work for you.
An endangered species, it should come as no surprise that sea turtles are banned as food in America. Some species of sea turtle have been on the endangered list since 1978. Restaurants caught serving turtle soup are subject to a $10,000 fine.
The worst offense comes with selling turtle eggs. Despite female turtles laying over 100 eggs at a time, less than one percent make it to the ocean. One Florida man was arrested with 92 turtle eggs. On the black market turtle eggs are worth up $30 per dozen. Now facing five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, it’s safe to say the illegal activity was not worth it.