Cardboard Shipping Box

no cost
(Received as packaging from Amazon.com)

Pet food larded with melamine. Tainted pork. Toxic fish. Zheng Xiaoyu, former head of China's Food and Drug Administration, executed for taking bribes from pharmaceutical companies.

I haven't been in the mood for Chinese lately.

Then, crowning our fears, Chinese news agencies broadcast an exposé revealing — horror of horrors! — that unscrupulous street vendors are selling buns filled with chemical-soaked cardboard.

Details

Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to keepitdown@riverfronttimes.com

Purportedly filmed with a hidden camera, the report aired on China Central Television. The segment, which was produced by a Beijing freelancer, showed a rudimentary kitchen in which workers were stuffing buns with 60 percent cardboard. The other 40 percent? "Fatty pork stuff," one of the workers offers. The international media jumped on the story.

After all, the news business is sort of like baking: Timing is everything.

Now it turns out the story was a fake. The reporter, Zi Beijia, has admitted that he supplied the cardboard, the meat and other ingredients. He also had the workers make buns while he filmed the stunt.

Given the earlier transgressions attributed to Chinese food processors, filling a bun with cardboard seems like a fairly minor offense. Which is to say: The cardboard shipping box I received when I ordered a book from Amazon.com didn't really taste so bad.

Sure, it was a little tough, but hell, so are the steaks at Denny's. Gnawing away at the toughened wad of processed lumber, I could have sworn I even detected a distinct hint of vanilla.

My co-taster for this particular experiment, game to the end, was more dismissive. He said it tasted like a two-by-four. I found that hard to believe. When pressed, he admitted that he'd only smelled, but had never actually tasted, a two-by-four. In his defense, though, they say that 70 percent of what we taste is actually what we smell.

So I guess I smelled vanilla.

But all the vanilla in Mexico won't help Zi Beijia. The Chinese government jailed him after it became public that he'd cooked the story — a development at least as troubling as toxic fish from China or buns stuffed with cardboard.

But while recent concerns about food safety have prompted our own President Bush to create a panel to recommend policies to ensure the safety of imported food, the incarceration of Zi Beijia has evoked no such response.

And I suppose that's the real problem: We like China as a trading partner because of its ready supply of cheap wares. But we turn a blind eye to its penchant for executing corrupt government officials and jailing prankster journalists.

And like the cardboard shipping box I received when I ordered a book from Amazon.com, our partnership with China might taste all right on the tongue, but when it comes right down to it, it's indigestible.

 
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