China Syndrome

A few weeks ago, when news broke of a Chinese street vendor selling steamed buns allegedly made partly out of cardboard, I expressed my dismay at the media's hyperbolic reporting of the story. Using this one incident as an argument in the larger debate about food safety wasn't just shoddy logic -- in my view, it pandered to Americans' most ignorant stereotypes of the Chinese. That the cardboard bun story was later revealed to be hoax didn't diminish my dismay.

Looks like I'm not the only one who feels this way. At, Imaeyen Ibanga looks at the effect that the cardboard-bun imbroglio and the recent focus on the safety of Chinese food imports has had on Chinese Americans. Ibanga interviews Lani Wong, head of the National Association of Chinese Americans:

"No one is going to report that was a hoax," Wong said. "Everyone is going to report that cardboard is going into meat dumplings."

Wong went as far as to say she believed racism played a role in the way the Chinese were portrayed in light of the food scare.

"I think it's just stereotyping, putting us in the same category as everything bad," Wong said.

For me, this is a matter of perspective. (Granted: This isn't something at which the mainstream media excels.) Yes, we have every reason to be concerned about food imported from China -- as thousands (at least) of pet owners can attest. But to leap from legitimate and necessary discussions about how to ensure the safety of food processed everywhere (including the U.S.) to these "Chinese people are eating cardboard!"-type stories is an utter waste.

As an example of utter waste, consider this piece by John Vause, Beijing correspondent for CNN. With all of these stories of dangerous Chinese food, Vause is now afraid to eat. In fact, he claims to have lost ten pounds in the last month. Here's his paranoia in full flower:

When ordering at restaurants, I wonder: Is that drug-tainted fish and shrimp? Did that pork come from a pig that was force-fed wastewater? Any melamine added to those noodles?

How is he dealing with his fears?

My wife searches across this city for breakfast cereal made in the United States. We have meat and fish flown in from Australia, milk from New Zealand, and on it goes.

Is he wrong to worry about the food on his plate? Of course not. But an informed eater should have those concerns about the food on his plate no matter where he is eating. (Would you like some Castleberry's chili sauce, John?) But acting like grabbing a bite to eat in Beijing is an existential threat smacks of sensationalism. Besides, there are 1.3 billion people in China. Are they dropping dead from bad pork left and right? I doubt it.

-Ian Froeb

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