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July 8, 2011

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Mapping toxic shockers

IN a sensational civics project, one Shanghai history student and 33 online volunteers have created a map and database of China's reported food safety problems since 2004. It's open to the public. Zhang Qian reports.

Reading all those headlines about toxic milk, tainted pork and beef and reused "gutter oil" is shocking, frightening and infuriating. The torrent of sickening news can also be numbing and most people think food safety is out of their hands. They go on eating.

Rather than curse the darkness, one young Chinese man, Wu Heng, has chosen to light his own candle and inspire more people to light theirs, shedding light on the problem and pressing for change.

Wu's website Zhi Chu Chuang Wai (Throw It Out of the Window,, referring to bad food) was opened on the morning of June 17, documenting and geographically mapping food scandals nationwide from 2004 through the end of May.

It's a database based on media reports and it's accessible so the public can add events and other information, updating and enriching the database. There's a link called "I want to add" where visitors can contribute and comment. Around 80 new cases have been added, mostly from June and July, bringing it up to date.

With the help of 33 volunteers recruited online nationwide, Wu collected 2,107 news reports over around seven and a half years. But many food safety problems have gone unreported and the real total is anyone's guess.

This citizens' project could add kindling to the fire of indignation.

The database can be searched by food type, toxic additives, dates, cities and provinces.

On the first day there were more than 10,000 visitors.

Wu, a 25-year-old graduate student majoring in history at Fudan University, says he was astonished at the response. Overwhelmingly visitors applauded his work, reaffirming his commitment and belief that Chinese people are awakening to the problem of poison in their food and environment.

"I had heard about various food scandals including the toxic milk powder and reused waste oil. I never thought it was very relevant to me, but the fake beef just remind me that nobody can survive if we continue in silence and tolerate this," he tells Shanghai Daily.

Though people were made aware of food scandals, many of his friends seemed indifferent, "saying that if everything is poisoned, the only choice is to go on eating as usual," Wu says.

"It's like cooking a frog with gentle heat. When people get numb, they just ignore the serious problem," he says.

Wu himself was like an ostrich, he says, believing that he could personally avoid problems if he ate carefully. But the report of fake beef made with beef extract in April pushed him to face the fact that he was vulnerable to disgusting and dishonest food processing. Beef served on top of rice was one of his favorite take-out dishes.

As a history major, Wu decided to use his strength, collecting and analyzing information collected by volunteers.


As expected, big cities like Beijing and Shanghai and provinces like Shandong and Guangdong had the most reported food scandals over the years, not only due to high population and numerous food industries, but also because of relatively open news reporting.

But another interesting finding is that the total number of reports nationwide dropped from 2006 to 2008, increased a bit and dropped again in 2010. But it soared sky high in 2011.

Wu at first had suspected that there might be mistakes in the collection, but then he realized that the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai influenced the reporting.

"The relatively intense control on media reporting might explain part of the facts, but I believe that stricter food regulation and more efforts in food safety in those years cannot be ignored," says Wu.

The fact of increasing number of reports today can be a starting point, get people focused on the problem and figure out how to improve, he says.

Some people take a bleak view and attribute the problems to loss of ideology, morality and belief as people strive to get rich - even if that means endangering the health of other people.

But Wu doesn't think it's about changed political thinking or spiritual issues. He thinks problems can be controlled and solved with advanced, clear and tough regulations, rigorous inspections, transparency and accountability at all levels. And the public must be more aware and ready to defend themselves.

"Throw It Out the Window," the name of Wu's website, comes from the story about US President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) who is said to have thrown his breakfast sausage out the widow after reading Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" (1906) about the unregulated meat-packing industry.

The book and the president's chucking out his sausage, contributed to passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.

Wu hopes that his website can help galvanize the public and regulators, though perhaps not as powerfully as Roosevelt's actions.

"Rather than simply curse the darkness, it is better to light a candle," says Wu. "For me, I have lighted my little one; I expect that my little candle can awaken more people to light theirs. I'm no expert and I can't make much of a change."

"Rather than just simply accept the life come to us, we chose to do what we can to make a change, such as helping more people know the truth," says Zheng Ying, one of the 33 volunteers. "Though the world is not good, it is still worth working for a better one."


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