Eating in China can be a diner’s delight or a hellish game of chance. For the affluent, it’s mostly the former, because money buys ways around the risks – organic food, imported food, food sourced from boutique farms that use the best international practices and charge a premium to those enjoying the fruits of their labor.

And then there’s everyone else. Most Chinese people buy what they can afford and take their chances that the food they buy hasn’t been illegally adulterated, that the milk they bring home is safe to give to their children. Billions of meals are eaten each day in China, and most are just fine – give or take a little excess pesticide on crops, antibiotics in chickens and pigs, and polluted groundwater watering them all.

It’s important to point out that more Chinese are eating better than at any point in China’s history. As one Chinese farmer once joked to me, “We used to eat what the pigs ate. Now, we eat the pigs.” Chinese, on average, eat four times more meat per person than they did 30 years ago. Aside from a spike in heart disease and obesity, and the challenges of producing all that meat (China is largely self-sufficient in pork despite being chronically short of land and water), that seems to many people to be a pretty great thing.

But every so often – too often, for a growing chorus of Chinese voices – a fiendishly creative bad actor finds a way to make a quick buck by passing off one thing as another. Pork is made to taste like beef, thanks to a carcinogenic chemical brushed on it. Watermelons explode after being injected with a chemical that makes them grow faster and bigger. Rotten fruit is pickled and treated with chemicals to make it look fresh on supermarket shelves. And in 2008, in the most infamous case, milk and infant formula were doctored with the chemical melamine, which reacts in tests like protein. That allowed middlemen to water down milk and still pass inspection. It also made at least 300,000 people ill and killed at least six infants. 

That would be bad enough, except it turns out that the government knew this was a problem months before it acted to stop it. It didn’t want a food scandal to put a damper on the Beijing Olympics, so it waited until afterward to deal with the mess.

Ever since, the Chinese public has become more vigilant and more vocal in demanding food safety. It has helped that, for most of that time, an already vibrant Chinese Internet scene has been turbocharged by more than 300 million people using Weibo – the closest thing China has to Twitter – to share ideas and information, especially about issues that affect everyone, like food safety.

Food safety blogger Wu Heng has ridden this wave. He started his blog in his graduate school dorm room in Shanghai in January and was getting millions of hits by May. He and about 30 volunteers post stories on food safety scandals around the country and what the government is doing about them. The Shanghai government has praised his efforts; he’d like to see both the local and national governments streamline and sharpen theirs on improving food safety.

“I think the government does know food safety issues are important, but they’re giving other things a higher priority, like fast economic growth and creating jobs,” he said. “But this can’t continue. People are losing trust in the government.”

It’s food for thought for China’s new Communist Party leaders, as they take the helm this week.

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Mary Kay Magistad has been the East Asia correspondent for PRI's The World since 2002 and has lived and reported in the region for two decades. She travels regularly and widely throughout China and beyond, exploring how China’s rapid transformation has affected individual lives and exploring the bigger geopolitical, economic and environmental implications of China’s rise. She steps back every so often to do an in-depth series on such topics as the China’s urbanization – the biggest and most rapid move from the countryside to the cities in human history, on the potential for innovation in China, and on the ripple effects on Chinese society of the One Child Generation coming of age. Mary Kay’s seven-part series on that subject, called “Young China,” won a 2007 Overseas Press Club Award, one of several awards she has received.