Rotten Food ‘Wikipedia’ Fights China’s Fake MeatNatasha Khan
Wu Heng’s favorite meal was braised beef rice before he saw a post on a Chinese social networking site displaying two identical photos of ’beef’ side-by-side.
One was beef from cows. The other was pork chemically treated to taste like beef. “Cheaters! Unacceptable!” he thought.
Outraged, Wu decided to take matters into his own hands. So, he put his master’s degree on hold to create what he describes as a “Wikipedia” that tracks food safety and questionable manufacturing in China.
He called it “Throwing It Out the Window,” -- a name inspired by a story he read on U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt supposedly tossing a sausage from the window after reading about food production horrors. Since its inception in 2011, Wu’s site has compiled a list of more than 3,000 instances of potentially unsafe food and now has more contributors than he can count.
“I felt like a victim, and I thought others might feel the same way too,” said Wu, 28, who works as a writer. “I’m hoping the site will help build the power of the market to drive change. Even if we can’t make changes, I think that if you are having unsafe food you should know you’re having it.”
His efforts show how China’s citizens are getting increasingly vocal in fighting health and environmental hazards. Chinese police last month arrested 17 men for selling poison-laden dog meat, according to state-controlled media. They separately seized about 30,000 tons of chicken feet treated with excessive amounts of hydrogen peroxide -- to lighten the meat’s color.
Wu views items like the colored beef as a food-safety problem. Manufacturers who misrepresent their products pose a health threat, he says, since consumers can’t be sure what exactly they are eating.
In 2008, at least six babies died after drinking melamine-laced formula. That incident caused outrage and most Chinese today are aware of the long-term links between food and health fallouts such as cancer, said Shawn Wu, a Shanghai-based senior manager at consultancy SmithStreet.
Creator of the food-safety site and a self-described Internet addict, Wu Heng estimates he spends more than 14 hours a day online between work, home and his mobile phone.
Within days of starting the site and scouring the Internet for examples, he realized going solo was “mission impossible” because there were too many instances and the news was “so disgusting.” He remembers going hungry at the start. Each time he felt the beginnings of hunger pangs, he’d remember all the pictures he’d seen and feel sick. “I didn’t eat for days,” he said via phone from Shanghai, where he lives.
So, he tapped social media with a call for volunteers. More than 30 Chinese -- both in the country and abroad -- answered.
Today, his site (www.zccw.info) draws about 5,000 hits daily and acts like a public encyclopedia with volunteers watching for local news reports on food problems and then uploading them. Like Wikipedia -- which he has no affiliation with -- anyone can post information directly. Wu himself spends around 15 to 30 minutes daily updating the site. He has also written a book on food safety that has the same name as his website.
While he reaches only a tiny subset of China’s 1.3 billion people, he’s happy to have even that following. Visitors to the site can look up food-safety violations by product and province -- tagged for easy searching.
The most shocking post Wu recalls is from 2011, when some restaurants were found collecting cooking oil from a trash dump and using that to cook for customers. “That was really unbelievable,” he said.
The site doesn’t independently verify posts. While contributors are allowed to upload local news reports, there isn’t an option to post their own pictures or findings.
One August post, for instance, links to an article on a Chinese news portal. Tagged for the province of Guangdong, pork, beef and coloring agent, it listed a store that sold pork that had been colored to a blood-red hue to resemble raw beef.
The posts are based on a variety of sources. Some are republished from government websites after investigations by local or federal agencies found violations of rules. Others are investigative reports from local media.
While the 2008 formula scandal prompted more government checks, implementation at the local level remains weak, said SmithStreet’s Wu. “The government and third-party inspectors need to find a way to make consumers’ voices louder.”
In July, McDonald’s Corp. pulled some items from its China restaurants after a local television station aired a report that it said showed workers at a Chinese unit of supplier OSI Group LLC repackaging old meat as new. Aurora, Illinois-based OSI in postings on its website has apologized to customers and said it is cooperating with authorities. OSI via e-mail said it was directing queries to its website and didn’t comment further. McDonald’s in a statement in September said it had appointed a China food-safety chief and is stepping up supplier audits.
“I have no doubt that the government is paying utmost attention,” said Ling Jin, a director at APCO Worldwide, who advises companies on food and consumer issues. “But in such a huge country with so many people, you can’t solely rely on the government to be making checks on every single item.”
Calls to the country’s regulatory body -- the China Food and Drug Administration -- weren’t answered. China’s premier, Li Keqiang, has pledged increased policing of food.
Born in China’s central Hubei province, Wu’s dream as a child was to have a book store, “so that I could read a lot.”
After earning his undergraduate degree in engineering in 2007, he began working on a master’s degree in historical Chinese geography in Shanghai. The three years it usually takes for the degree turned into five when he took time out to build his website, and another year off to teach rural school children.
He intends for the website to stay a public-interest resource, and says he pays the 1,500 yuan ($244) yearly domain hosting fee out of his own pocket since “it isn’t much.” He says the government has offered help over the past few years, and he declined in order to stay independent.
Wu has a set of suggestions for friends who ask how they can avoid being conned by fake food. Consumers should shop at stores (instead of mobile stalls), pay regular prices (rather than be seduced by good deals), and “rotate their poison” (consume a wide range of food so toxins don’t accumulate in the body). Others tell him to accept reality and that unsafe food is impossible to avoid in China.
“I have many dreams,” Wu said. “Some of them I have the ability and the chance to do, so I’ll do.” His motto, which is also part of his e-mail signature, is “the world is not a fine place but is worth fighting for.”
Wu is inspired partly by Roosevelt, who was apparently so sickened by Upton Sinclair’s descriptions of horrible conditions in the meatpacking industry in the 1906 book “The Jungle” that he signed an act that led to the creation of what today is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A history buff, he says the name of his website is also drawn from another historical tale that’s more than 500 years old.
During incidents called the Defenestrations of Prague several hundred years ago, discontent with inequality in Bohemia fueled social tensions, causing a mob to storm the town hall and throw some members of the town council out of the window.
(An earlier version of this article was corrected to fix a historical reference.)