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China's food fighter

Wu Heng with a packet of the kind of cheap beef rice which he ate almost every day over six months. It was after eating such beef, which he now believes to be pork slathered with banned chemicals to pass off as beef, that he set up China's first food safety website. (ST PHOTO: PEH SHING HUEI)

Publication Date : 23-07-2012

 

After reading a news report on how rogue operators in China marinated pork in banned chemicals to pass off as beef, which costs more, Wu Heng felt sick.

It dawned on the IT marketing executive that the cheap and good 10 yuan (US$1.60) beef rice he had been eating almost every day for half a year was in fact contaminated pork.

"My roommate had warned me it didn't taste like beef. And that beef couldn't be that cheap. I didn't understand. I didn't know there could be such a thing as fake beef," said the 26-year-old.

That incident in April last year rattled him - but it also gave him a sense of mission. So about two months later on June 17, he launched China's first food safety monitoring website.

The Wikipedia-like portal, which allows users to upload reports, serves as a bad news aggregator of food safety breaches. It has accrued about 3,000 such incidents, some from as far back as 2004.

Early this month, the portal had an expose on the prevalence of bugs in snacks made by a well-known Hunan firm.

Wu, who completed a master's in geographic information science at the prestigious Fudan University this month, uses a digital map that shows users at a glance how the provinces fare on food safety.

Those that do well are coloured blue with smiley faces. The bad ones are highlighted in red and given frowning faces.

The website draws an average of 10,000 hits daily, he said.

In May and June, amid health scares over toxic pills that contain excessive levels of chromium which can damage organs, the number peaked at some five million over 11/2 months.

Wu maintains the portal at a low cost - just over 1,000 yuan ($158) invested - thanks to a team of more than 30 volunteers recruited online after a rallying cry by him on his blog.

"I wanted to do it alone initially. But after just one day trawling through the news, especially one on gutter oil in Guangdong, I lost my appetite and couldn't eat," he recalled, referring to used cooking oil collected from restaurant garbage and drains, reprocessed and sold at low prices. "It was too gross. I knew I needed help."

The website has become a one-stop platform for one of China's ugliest and most vexing problems in its race to modernity.

"It puts together all the negative news on one portal. I knew it would not please the government," said the Hubei native.

In May, the authorities came knocking.

The nine Shanghai Food Safety Office officials surprised him by being cordial and even offered him funding.

The grassroots activist turned the offer down to maintain the website's independence. But he is aware that he is treading on sensitive ground.

"There are many ways for a website to disappear in China," said the bespectacled food fighter, who spends at least eight hours online reading and chatting with friends every day.

His parents, both of them civil servants in central Hubei province, have urged him to be careful. He has taken their advice, somewhat. The website does not have a blacklist of Chinese companies.

"It's something I should do because consumers are very forgetful and the laws are weak. Enterprises that flouted food safety very often do it again," he said.

But he stopped himself because he fears that the firms would attack him and the website.

"It's regretful, but I have to face facts. I have to wait till I'm stronger," he said.

That optimism fuels his mission.

The website is named zhi chu chuang wai, or "Throw it out the window".

It was inspired by a story he had read about former United States president Theodore Roosevelt, who was said to have thrown a sausage out a White House window after reading about abysmal meat processing practices in Chicago.

He pushed for legislation in the early 1900s to overhaul the country's food safety and this eventually led to the setting up of the US Food and Drug Administration.

"Many countries have managed to turn their food safety problems around as their societies develop. So by this logic, China can do it too," he said.

But it will take many years, he stressed.

Still, when that day comes, he hopes his portal will serve as an archive for Chinese in future so they can better understand their country.

"Sometimes, I think if I'm not living in this age, I would have problems believing the food safety violations in China.

"They are so disgusting it seems like something that happens only in fairy tales."

 

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