The “China Survival Guide” app and “Throw it out the Window” site are two great new tools for understanding food safety issues in China and informing purchase decisions.
“China Survival Guide”, created by a Kingsoft product manager and released under the developer name 可牛网络 (ke niu wang luo) in May, helps catalogue news on food safety scandals, allowing you to search for updates by food category, “risk level” (危害), city, and food brand name. The app has gotten 5 star reviews consistently, and I think a user review on the iTunes store summed up the general response to the content well: “在中国活着是个奇迹！” (“In China, staying alive is a miracle!”)
The most recent headline under the milk category (奶制品) posted on June 12th, 2012, warns consumers about “unusual” levels of mercury (汞 gǒng) in Yili’s (伊利) type 2, 3, and 4 milk powders (乳粉 rǔfěn). Disturbingly, while these products have been recalled in Carrefour and Jinkelong supermarket chains, they are still available on Taobao.
The app goes so far as to suggest avoiding any Yili milk powder until further updates. I have to wonder how food producers in China will react in light of this new level of transparency and consumer access to information. It will take some serious damage control to help restore consumer confidence in the brands that show up in these reports.
“China Survival Guide” also lets you sync with your Sina and Tencent Weibo accounts to help forward stories of concern (especially useful for the Suluku weibo…) as well as email and text them to friends. The app guide says there should be an English version as well, although I haven’t been able to locate it yet.
“Throw it Out the Window” is a site that also helps consumers navigate the seemingly endless reports on food safety issues. In addition to being able to search by location and food type, you can also browse stories related to different contaminant categories (i.e. mercury, melamine..). Te database is the result of a crawl of all available web stories from 2004-2011, and also relies on netizens to submit new stories.
A general takeaway from the site, if you are not familiar with and/or trust the farm where your dairy and meat products are produced, avoiding these products may be one of the best ways to reduce exposure to contaminated food:
Wu ["Throw it Out the Window"s creator], whose studies focus on modern Shanghai and are unrelated to food, said his crash course in contemporary food problems has steered him away from meat and milk, which seem plagued more than others by quality issues.
While both the website and app are a great resource for consumers, Salon highlighted that they may not always tell the full story on food safety:
While shining an unflattering spotlight on China’s food problems, both the Kingsoft app and Wu’s site rely on government sanctioned reports from state-run media. A more daring approach would be to do fully independent testing or reporting on food, but attempts to do that have been shut down.
Still, they are immensely helpful in empowering consumers to make better purchase decisions, and that is a great first step!