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June 22, 2011

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Savvy consumers learn to pick and choose

LOOKING at dozens of watermelons in a fruit shop, 56-year-old retiree Joanna Lu picks up a melon of medium size. She checks the stem, knocks on the melon and listens for the right, hollow sound, as usual.

Then she takes it to the shop owner for weighing, and suddenly remembers something. "Does this melon have black seeds?" she asks.

The owner tells her all melons have black seeds, none are filled with immature white seeds. As he has received so many inquiries lately, he writes "black seeds" on the melon sign.

Food safety scandals, one after another, are undermining people's trust in food and food producers. Apart from processed foods with various legal and illegal (or illegal amounts of) additives, even fresh fruits, vegetables and meat can have their problems. These includes the much-publicized case of bean sprouts in Germany that contain deadly bacteria, watermelons that explode and pigs fed on the illegal drug clenbuterol to promote lean meat.

Given all the bad news, people are becoming more knowledgeable and careful about choosing the best produce. For example, fruit and vegetables with insect bites and imperfections usually contain less pesticide; cucumbers with flowers on the top are usually the freshest; tomatoes that are round rather than protuberant almost certainly are grown with little growth-promoting agents.

And just a few days ago, Lu learned that watermelons with black seeds are grown naturally without growth-promoting agents. The fast growth means the melons are not fully mature and still contain young white seeds. "That makes sense, since the melons we ate 20 years ago all had black seeds," says Lu. "We didn't hear anything about growth-promoting chemicals at that time."


Simply defining the quality of a fruit or vegetable by its appearance may not be accurate, according to Hu Wei, associate director of the Jinshan Agricultural Committee.

"Not every big watermelon is grown by using CPPU (forchlorfenuron growth agent); size may be related to varieties and production areas," says Hu, who suggests that finding a qualified and certified source of produce may be the more reliable way to select safe produce.

Most supermarket foods bear labels containing information on additives; in traditional markets, shoppers can ask to see certification to sell in the market. But it's hard to know what you're getting in traditional fruits shops.

Since the food-tracing system in Shanghai is incomplete, consumers should be savvy, says Yu Yuqin, senior engineer at the Shanghai Food Industry Institute.

She notes that many foods are bleached white for appearance using sulfites, often steamed in sulfur dioxide gas. Sulfites are common preservatives, used in wine and dried fruits. They are not dangerous in tiny amounts.

Tips on choosing

? Cucumbers

The natural season for harvest is June and July. Produce in other seasons is grown with chemicals.

Hard cucumbers with flowers at the top are a sign of freshness, but the flower should be withered, rather than fresh. A blossoming flower indicates a growth-promoting agent.

? Meat

A qualified source is usually the best certification for good meat. Products of big brands are usually safer, and inspection and quarantine certification (a series of blue stamps) is also proof. As for appearance, safe pork should have a layer of fat between the skin and the meat.

? Watermelon

Fresh stems indicate freshness. Black seeds indicate that little growth-promoting agents were used. Lots of white seeds, which are not unhealthy, are a sign of growth promoters.

? Ginger

Avoid bright yellow ginger since it might have been steamed in sulfur; the sulfur naturally dissipates in a few days. So don't eat it right away. Or make sure when you buy that the cut ginger is pale in color.

? White fungus

Most of the white fungus on the market has been bleached white using sulfur dioxide. It should be cooked for three to four hours to eliminate the sulfur.

? Mushrooms

Snow-white mushrooms have usually been bleached by steaming in sulfur dioxide. Choose mushrooms that are darker, maybe a bit yellow and slightly sticky to the touch.

? Bean sprouts

Thin and long bean sprout with root hairs are safe, naturally grown sprouts. Thick short sprouts without roots are usually a sign of a chemical growth promoter.


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