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Consumers' paranoia compounded by toxic food, air and farmland

BEIJING--“Every day I ask myself, what is safe to eat? The pork is laced with clenbuterol; the beef and lamb contain other toxic additives; and we don't dare drink the milk.”

For most Chinese, living in a healthy manner is not just common sense but a form of piety. If you fall sick, it is widely assumed it's because you didn't really take care of yourself.

But as the lament above — posted on microblogging site Sina Weibo under the pseudonym “White Clouds, Calm Wind” — suggests, this ancient precept did not anticipate the advent of melamine, cadmium, pesticides, lead, mercury, sulphur dioxide, microparticles and dozens of other potentially harmful chemicals that have worked their way into China's food chain, water supply and atmosphere.

Nearly three decades of double-digit industrial development greased by corruption and barely constrained by regulatory oversight has produced, as a by-product, unprecedented levels of pollution and an epidemic of toxic foodstuffs — from baby formula to the grain alcohol favored at wedding banquets, made and marketed by ruthless entrepreneurs.

Many of the thousands of small-scale public protests across China each year are driven by the visible impact of environmental pollution on people's daily lives, say watchdog groups within and outside the country.

Until recently, such outbursts never garnered attention beyond the immediate zone of impact. But the Internet, and especially homegrown microblogging sites with some 600 million accounts, means the state can no longer keep such incidents from becoming household knowledge across China.

Dozens of food and beverage scandals resulting in hundreds of deaths have made Chinese consumers wary, apprehensive and finally angry.

Gutter Oil, Unnatural White Flour

White Clouds, Calm Wind's litany of alimentary anxiety also includes a fear of “talc in our tofu,” a staple source of protein consumed throughout China.

“And we can't eat fried food either, because who can guarantee that it wasn't cooked in recycled oil taken from the streets?” At the end of last year, more than four dozen people were arrested in one province alone for reselling so-called “gutter oil” scooped up from the drains of restaurants.

“As for flour, it's so unnaturally white that it's frightening,” says the blogger.

Tainted food may be the least of China's health hazards — it is still easier for the government to crack down on unscrupulous merchants than to purify China's water and air. Just this year, there have been two major chemical discharges in life-giving rivers that have sent people scurrying to the supermarket.

In January, multiple factories upstream along a 300-kilometer stretch of the Longjiang from the city of Liujiang were found to be dumping huge amounts of the deadly carcinogen cadmium. Some four million people were affected.

Weeks later, an acid spilled in the Yangtze at Zhejiang, one of the country's wealthiest provinces, provoked a short-lived panic when residents in Zhenjiang city smelled the results in their tap water.

But many consumers will have wondered if the water that disappeared from market shelves is necessarily safer. Only last year, Beijing authorities halted the sale of 31 brands of bottled water that failed safety tests. Many harbored colonies of bacteria that was hundreds — and in one case 9,000 — times above threshold standards.

The same goes for ostensibly certified “organic” foods, a sector that has nearly quadrupled in size in as many years as middle-class consumers look for guarantees that what they are eating is free of unsafe levels of pesticides.

Only China's top leaders, provisioned from special farms, can be sure they are eating safely, according to Gao Zhiyong, who worked for a state-run food company and then wrote a book about it.

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