Q&A: China's Top Consumer Advocate

Knee-deep into his exposé of China's food industry, author Zhou Qing relates a disturbing anecdote about a pig-feed additive called clenbuterol. The chemical is poisonous to humans, causing dizziness, fatigue, nausea and heart palpitations. But breeders like the substance—known locally as lean-meat essence—because it makes pork redder and meatier. Zhou hears from a food-safety official about a provincial political leader told by a farmer that his pigs still get the banned chemical because it makes their meat a hot seller in urban areas. "Don't you know that it harms people?" asks the official. "'Yes," replies the farmer. "But city people have free medical care, so it's no problem."

Tainted Chinese food and drugs have become an issue of concern globally after a spate of illnesses and accidents. Pet foods that include melamine-spiked wheat gluten are now being blamed for the deaths of an unknown number of American pets. Cough syrup laced with mislabeled diethylene glycol has claimed the lives of at least 50 people in Panama. Many countries have blacklisted Chinese toothpastes containing the same ingredient. In recent years, Zhou notes, Russians popping Chinese pork out of the oven have discovered drops of mercury on the pan. Countries from Asia to Europe to North America have found traces of arsenic, illegal antibiotics and other potentially carcinogenic chemicals in Chinese seafood exports, leading the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to suspend the sale of five farm-raised varieties just last week.

The products sold inside China are even more dangerous. An eight-year-old ban on clenbuterol did not stop the poisoning of more than 300 people who ate contaminated pork in Shanghai last year. Zhou's book, "What Kind of God," reels off many other disconcerting examples. He writes of farmed fish and seafood farm-fattened on birth-control pills, which experts say have decimated the sperm counts of Chinese men. There are kids' snacks that are laced with hormones, leading 7-year-old girls to grow breasts and 6-year-old boys to grow beards. Then there are the cheap brands of soy sauce flavored with fermented—and arsenic and lead-contaminated—hair swept directly off barber-shop floors.

In one notorious case in 2001, officials in the southeastern port of Zhoushan blamed toxic frozen shrimp exports sent to Europe on peasant women who use antiseptics to wash cuts on their hands. In fact, Zhou says, seafood raisers regularly dump bottles full of potentially cancer-causing chemicals like malachite green into their tanks to prevent fungal infections. Zhou's book shows a picture of a scribbled page from a shrimp farmer's accounts. "Malachite green, 15 bottles," it reads. Five years on, he writes, this culture of deceit lingers even as the stakes get bigger. As Zhou's updated manuscript went to press in late 2006, fish pickled with antibiotics and illegal chemicals were traced from abroad back to fish markets up and down the eastern seaboard—a major blow to an industry now worth an estimated $35 billion a year.

Zhou intended his study to be a wake-up call to the nation. Its title is a subversive twist on an imperial Chinese proverb, "Food is the people's heaven," which conveys the age-old ideal that a ruler's mandate is only as good as his ability to feed his people. In recent decades China's Communist Party mandarins have fed them pretty well. But Zhou's title poses the taunting question: "What kind of food? " He portrays a fast-growing country suffering from something of a food safety coma, overindulged with good eats but underprotected from the dangers. "Chinese people today are fed like pigs," Zhou tells NEWSWEEK, "so that all they'll want to do is keep on eating."

Indeed, Zhou's timely book has had curiously little impact inside China. Expanded from a report first published in a Beijing-based journal in September 2004, it became a 2006 finalist for a prestigious reporting award, the Lettre Ulysses. According to Zhou, Politburo officials endorsed his initial study as an important account of China's food safety problem. NEWSWEEK has reviewed copies of what appeared to be official documentation confirming this. The acclaim, however, seems to have had scant effect. When an updated version of the book was released at the beginning of this year, its text was heavily edited and the print run small and little publicized. Zhou, 42, says he's been told that state security authorities warned the Beijing-based publishers against promoting the work.

Zhou believes his dissident status may have made the authorities especially sensitive: as the publisher of an independent political journal at the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, he spent nearly three years in jail afterward. (When NEWSWEEK contacted the office of the editor in charge of the book at the China Workers Publishing House, a man answering the phone said the circulation of the book was "not large." The man, who refused to give his name, said editors had cut and modified the study on finding that "some of the figures and contents were incorrect," but that the volume had been distributed as planned.)

China's central government has begun to confront the problem. In May, a court sentenced to death Zheng Xiaoyu, the first chief of China's State Food and Drug Administration, for approving fake medicines and pocketing bribes in exchange for waiving approval procedures. In June, Beijing unveiled its first five-year plan for food safety, prescribing new mechanisms to trace and recall food, respond rapidly to scares and blacklist offending companies. But critics say that government's latest spurt of action was prompted by embarrassment at having its quality problems made public internationally rather than domestic scandals and concerns about quality. "Zheng Xiaoyu was sentenced to death because of America's dogs and Panama's cough syrup," says Zhou.

Zhou began investigating China's food supply after a dinner he shared with a friend in Guangdong, the carnivorously uninhibited southern province where it's said people will "eat anything with wings—except an airplane." The local Cantonese swear by their belief in the curative value of what they eat, right down to the individual body part. This restaurant's specialty: placenta soup, believed to be a boost for fertility, among other things. The placentas come from the aborted fetuses of migrant women workers who are unmarried or out of line with the government's one-child policy. During dinner, Zhou peeked into the back kitchen and saw the cooks scooping out fetuses. He makes a karmic link between gastronomical excesses and the maladies that have afflicted Guangdong, breeding ground of diseases from avian flu to SARS: "Perhaps heaven was exacting his revenge on all those people who dared eat human dumplings."

"What Kind of God" is not exactly an epic on the order of "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel of life in the rancid bowels of Chicago's meatpacking district. That fictional account was enough to provoke a flood of letters to Teddy Roosevelt's White House and help pave the way to the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act. Zhou's work is more a stitch-job of Chinese news bites, pop trivia and Zhou's own brushes with officials, experts and peasants. Until now, he confesses, he'd never even heard of "The Jungle." Still, Zhou has no doubt about where the brunt of the blame lies. "We must get to the crux of the problem with the system," he writes. "While cracking down on the immediate perpetrators of food-safety incidents, it's even more critical that we crack down on the officials who bear the responsibility." With the world's attention now focused on the quality of Chinese goods, his damning indictment may yet prove a first step along that road.