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Exploding Chinese Watermelons May Be Caused by Growth-Promoting Chemicals

The use of a chemical that prompts plant growth may have contributed to overripe watermelons bursting in their fields in eastern China, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

More than 700 mu (47 hectares or 115 acres) of melons in the city of Danyang in Jiangsu province were ruined when they burst open, Xinhua reported yesterday. The chemical forchlorfenuron may have caused some of the watermelons to burst, the news service reported, citing Wang Liangju, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University. Heavy rainfall after a recent drought may have also contributed, according to the report.

“I have never seen this phenomenon,” said Bob Morrissey, executive director of the U.S. National Watermelon Association in Lakeland, Florida. “Watermelons do not burst only from rainfall.” The U.S. allows forchlorfenuron to be used for growth of grapes and kiwifruit and the chemical isn’t classified in China as an illegal food additive.

The bursting watermelons are the latest in a series of food-safety scares in China that have included tainted pork, chemicals in steamed buns and milk tainted with the chemical melamine. China has increased inspections and made food safety a metric for grading the performance of local government officials in an effort to prevent the scandals from fueling social unrest.

Tainted Dairy

Six children were killed and thousands were sickened by melamine-tainted dairy products in 2008, prompting the government to execute two people involved in the scandal and form a food-safety commission led by Vice Premier Li Keqiang.

Reports of food safety issues this year have also included toxic fish, tainted bean sprouts and Sichuan peppercorns dyed with a red coloring. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said last month the incidents reflected a “severe” lack of integrity.

Liu Mingsuo, one of the farmers in Jiangsu whose watermelons burst, said this year was the first he had planted the fruit and used forchlorfenuron, Xinhua reported. Liu used the chemical too late in the season, Xinhua cited Nanjing Agriculture University’s Wang as saying.

Watermelon prices in China this year have gained about 20 percent from 2010, the Chongqing Morning Post newspaper reported.

Consumers are concerned that supersized fruit contains chemical residues and is unsafe to eat, Xinhua reported. Nanjing Agricultural University’s Wang suggests starting a produce- tracking system that shows consumers the amount of pesticides and fertilizers used on their foods, Xinhua reported.

Weather Effect

About 10 percent of watermelons burst normally, with the rate at which they do so depending on variety and weather, Xinhua reported, citing Xu Jinhua of the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

The U.S. watermelon association’s Morrissey said rain only causes mildew and cosmetic cracks inside melons. The problem was likely caused by forchlorfenuron, he said.

The chemical forchlorfenuron is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “not likely to be a human carcinogen” or cancer risk. Exposure to forchlorfenuron residues in food and drinking water “will not exceed the agency’s level of concern for chronic dietary aggregate exposure by the general U.S. population or any population subgroup,” according to the environmental agency.

China’s Ministry of Health, which updated its food safety guidelines on April 17, didn’t include forchlorfenuron on its list of 47 illegal food additives or its list of 22 additives that are likely to be abused.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joshua Fellman in New York at jfellman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bruce Grant at bruceg@bloomberg.net

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