Banned pesticides in Chinese produce — no surprise, nothing’s safe

A couple years ago I wrote about how absent trust is in day-to-day living in China. With food scare after food scare, unfortunately nothing seems to be improving.

So, it’s little surprise to read that Greenpeace is reporting, “Banned pesticides detected on vegetables in Tesco and other supermarkets in China.” The following sums up the report well:

Supermarket giants such as Tesco should be leading the way when it comes to shifting China’s agricultural industry to an eco-agricultural one, which includes reducing the country’s heavy use of chemicals in production. And instead they, along with Lotus and Lianhua, are seriously lax in keeping to China’s current standards.

It’s not fair to expect the common farmer alone to end the nation’s addiction to pesticides. From production to retail, it’s a shared responsibility among producers, suppliers and retailers to ensure food safety. Corporate and social responsibility means doing more than just what the law requires. The actions of the “big three” of China’s supermarket biz have the potential to be game changers. They have the capacity to control pesticide in their products and so it’s to them that we ask: are we going to see an end to hazardous levels of pesticides in China’s food?

That’s right, while most of the report compares the supermarkets tested to more developed EU standards, it also found that even China’s domestic standards are not being met. This isn’t just produce from some poor farmer selling veg from a cart on the side of a dirt road in Hebei — these are massive international supermarket chains. C’mon guys, you can do better.

Results of each supermarket

Tesco

  • 16 vegetable and fruit samples were taken from Tescos in Beijing and Guangzhou. Among them, 11 were found containing pesticide residues. Six samples contained pesticides that the EU classifiers suspect to be hormone disruptors. Six samples contained pesticides that EU classifies as possibly harmful to unborn babies.
  • A spinach sample contained pesticide procymidone level 2.99 mg/kg, which exceeds the EU MRL of 0.02 mg/kg by 149 times. The pesticide itself is no longer allowed to be used in EU as it has been classified as a suspected hormone disruptor.
  • One leafy vegetable sample turned up two kinds of pesticides, methamidophos and monocrotophos, the use of which have been prohibited in China since the beginning of year 2007.
  • Out of four rice samples taken, one contained 0.02 mg/kg of isoprothiolane pesticide residue, which is above the EU MRL standard. In the EU this product would not be allowed to be sold.

Lotus

  • We sampled 12 fruit and vegetable samples from stores in Shanghai and Wuhan. Nine samples contained pesticide residues. Seven samples contained pesticides that the EU classifiers suspect to be hormone disruptors. Five contained pesticide residues that EU classifiers suspect may harm unborn babies.
  • A Chinese leek sample and an eggplant sample contained the pesticide methamidophos, the use of which has been banned since 2007. The pesticide was also found on a rice sample at low levels.

Lianhua, with affiliate stores Hualian and Century Mart

  • We sampled 22 fruit and vegetable samples from supermarkets in Shanghai, Wuhan and Hangzhou. 15 samples were found to contain pesticide residues. 11 samples contained pesticides that the EU classifiers suspect to be hormone disruptors. Eight contained pesticides the EU classifiers suspect may harm unborn babies.
  • A Chinese leek sample contained pesticide residue procymidone levels of 1.05 mg/kg. This exceeds the Chinese MRL standard of 0.02 mg/kg. The pesticide residue carbendazim levels of 3.21 mg/kg also exceed the Chinese MRL standard of 2mg/kg. These two pesticides are both categorized by the EU as hormone disruptors. Procymidone is not allowed to be used in the EU.
  • A leafy vegetable contained the pesticide methamidophos, the use of which has been banned since year 2007.

Greenpeace specifically targeted some of the largest chains, but I’m pretty confident that their results would be found consistent (or worse) across most supermarkets in China. And while it may seem counter-intuitive to what we’re used to in the West, your local “fresh” foods market is likely much much worse. With virtually no regulation, and little risk of massive corporate blowback, motivation in the market is virtually always about the quick mao at the customer’s expense.

Ultimately it’s not (just) the produce retailers that are broken, the food industry in China is rotten to its core. Public awareness is increasing, and that demand is fueling improvements from up high; but as headline after headline shows, that progress is lagging. As such, I think it’s best to embrace a much higher level of personal safety responsibility while living in China.

While it won’t completely remove chemicals, particularly that have grown “into” the produce, here are a few points on how to minimize exposure when cooking/eating produce in China:

  • Vigorously wash the fruit or veg in (preferably distilled or boiled) clean water. Detergent can stick to the produce, so if used, should be used heavily diluted. Optionally, use food-safe detergent.
  • Peel as much as you can. I initially found it strange that my wife would suck the grape out of its skin, as back in Canada we’d eat the whole thing. I now understand Chinese people eat some things a certain way for a reason.
  • Pesticides aren’t the only concern. Ever wonder why developing countries rarely have fresh salads on traditional menus? Nasty microbes can be introduced from fertilizer to poor sanitation in the market (are you sure your veg wasn’t sitting under a dripping tray of chicken before it was put on the shelf? Me neither). Cleaning will help, but also be sure to fully cook everything you can. When cooking isn’t possible, use the following simple disinfectant recipe from Susiej:
    1. Fill your kitchen sink [or large wok] with cold water.
    2. Add four tablespoons of salt and the juice of half a fresh lemon.
    3. Soak fruits and vegetables five to ten minutes (leafy greens two to three minutes and berries one to two minutes)
    4. Rinse well after soaking and use.

If you have more constructive tips on good food safety, please share in the comments below.

h/t Shanghaiist

UPDATE 2012-09-21: Greenpeace has filed lawsuits against some of the worst offenders above. Read more about it here.