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ACT | On Your Convictions

Wu Heng, Shanghai, China; graduate student at Fudan University
Wu Heng, Shanghai, China; graduate student at Fudan University | Photo by Cai Xianmin/Global Times

DATA HUNGRY

"In April 2011, I read an article about braised beef, a dish that I love. The story reported that sometimes the beef is really pork treated with additives to make it look and taste like beef. That's when I decided to create an online database of food safety issues in China. My major is historical geography, and I like to collect data.

"I posted a call for volunteers on my Renren [China's version of Facebook] page, and 33 people responded. We combed through more than 17,000 news stories, and in June we launched the website, which lists 2,849 food safety incidents going back to 2004. You can look them up by date, area, and food category. Anyone can update it with new reports.

"I also designed a map that shows different regions in different colors according to the extent of their food safety problems—but you have to keep in mind that the data is based on media coverage, which is better in some areas than others.

"Some of the stories are really appalling, like one about food stalls that use the meat of stray dogs and cats instead of beef or pork. This past April, media outlets broke a story about factories that use waste leather to make the gelatin in drug capsules, and a lot of them linked to our site. We got 2 million hits that week.

"I named the website Zhi Chu Chuang Wai, or Throw It out the Window, because that's what Theodore Roosevelt did with his breakfast sausage while reading Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

"China's food system is largely unregulated, like America's was back then. We need better regulation if we want to be sure that our food is safe. I want to wake people up, show them that we will be in a very dangerous situation if nothing changes." —interview by Wendy Becktold, translated by Laura Hayden

GREASY INDUSTRY Restaurants in China annually gross more than $300 million peddling kitchen waste, which is later refined and sold as cooking oil.

ON THE WEB View Wu Heng's website, Zhi Chu Chuang Wai, at zccw.info (in Chinese). Find food safety alerts from the Hong Kong government at www.cfs.gov.hk/eindex.html.

 


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