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


  • 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.


  • 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.


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  2. This is timely for me, ’cause I’m about to start cooking a lot more. Having eaten out nearly every day I’ve been in China can’t have been too safe!

    • Same here Danny. About a month ago or so I decided to pick up a love I used to have for cooking, but that had died a bit over my time in China. Jamie Oliver is my new best friend.

      It’s almost painful to watch cooking shows and see all the high quality ingredients they use and then think of the hormone-injected, pesticide-marinaded, melamine-flavoured stuff that fills my fridge. But however bad the grocery stores are, medium- to low-end Chinese restaurants are sure to be pretty much the worst for using (and abusing) the cheapest, most unsanitary stuff they can to save a few kuai. I can’t say I fault them (directly), as rising food prices have surely all but killed what little margins they had, but I have a hard time stomaching the thought of where the ingredients come from, how they’re stored and how it’s all prepared.

  3. Thanks for this post! I just came across your site and I will be back for sure. We moved to Teda near Tianjin 8 weeks ago now. I have three small children, so I am even more concerned about making smart choices with food while we are here (for 3 years).

    I recently found a tip to fill the sink with water (filtered at least, would be smart here) and add a cup or so of distilled vinegar. Put all of your produce in the skin so that it is covered, and soak for 10 minutes. Rinse with filtered water. The vinegar will help to clean the produce. I think this may be a common practice for me while we are here. I’m not sure how much more/less is killed/removed from the produce from using a spray or soap, but it is a safe and healthy suggestion.

    Thanks again!

  4. I am married to a lovely and wonderful chinese woman. The first things I did notice in China is that many people would peel the skins off fruits that I, in the USA, would eat.

    These fruits include apples, pear apples, grapes, peaches. My wife and in-laws said that the fruits here have to much pesticides and questionable fertilizer chemicals that I felt why even bother eating the stuff anyway?

    My wife told me that one had to be extremely cautious when buying anything in the supermarkets and especially the fruit and vegetable stands own by the peasants. Peasant selling “fresh” produce is not organic like in the USA when it comes to farmer’s markets. She also told me about cooking oils are another major headache, in relation to the arrest of 32 people selling USED and DIRTY illegal cooking oil to restaurants and small food outlets that appeared in the chinese news outlets a few weeks ago.

    I also remember about imported dog and cat food brought to the USA killed many pets, there was infant deaths attributed to chinese made baby formula a few years back and so on.

    This really makes me appreciate food safety and how even though in the USA we have had E.coli outbreaks, I still trust our FDA…for now.

    • I agree Mario, but don’t think it’s as much to do with the FDA — which like so many large policy-affecting government organizations, are just fronts for corporate interests — but rather consumer knowledge and rights. I think that’s mostly what’s not protected Chinese thus far, but that too is changing slowly.

      As for “why bother eating the stuff anyway?” — because the alternative is starvation?

    • Having spent 4 years in China I have not seen one native eat the skin of a peach or apple. They know that the pesticides and food handling generally is not safe. I am more concerned about products imported from China because the earth is so polluted with chemicals from industry that I believe they absorb from them ground. Only a very expensive lab test can show what you are really getting into your system.
      When living in China you are a captive since there is little choice however I avoid all imported Chinese products when I can. Children especially should avoid some of these imports from countries that don’t have strong safeguards. The FDA tries as best they can but with what now estimated to 80% of our food supply coming from abroad its an impossible task. Ironically some politicians want to do away with the FDA or weaken the regulations.

  5. Thanks for the piece Ryan. Another way one can take ‘individual responsibility’ is to go organic, and to buy at supermarkets that are taking the lead in terms of corporate social responsibility. I’ve listed which in a follow-up piece: http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/news/blog/sick-of-eating-pesticides-in-china-heres-what/blog/36950/

    But when it comes down to it, it’s still about ALL the major supermarkets making a step in the right direction, thereby helping turn around the entire state of the food industry in China. As well as having big environmental ramifications too!

  6. @Ryan: As for “why bother eating the stuff anyway?” — because the alternative is starvation?

    Your tongue is firmly in cheek <^_^)

    I was just asking the question in reference that I am not used to these procedures in USA since I have my own fruit trees and buy and trade with other fruit growers. This really opened my eyes to food safety and my wife's when I told her there are REAL organic vegetables and fruits in the

    I also agree with your comment about the FDA being more supportive for corporate interests first and consumer safety second. Just look at how quickly a new drug is out in the market by big pharmaceuticals while alternative drugs from smaller competitors are scrutinized to the nTH degree. I notice that a lot of the drugs from these big pharmaceuticals have a slew of side effects where asking why bother taking the new drug is very relevant.

    Anyway, I love the blog with it's useful information and insights as a foreigner living in China.

    • I’m entirely jealous of your fruit trees. I’m hoping to start my own little herb garden, and am considering maybe seeing if I can do a few boxes of simple veggies as well (I imagine some peas and such would do alright on a balcony with decent sun).

      And yep, my tongue is far too often firmly in cheek 🙂

  7. Now what? Those “remedies” are not convincing. I live in Beijing and shop food at local outlets. I need to lose some weight anyway, so this might be a good motivator. Or else eat where? McDonald’s? Subway? Guess I am doomed.

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