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Food Fears Persist In China 2 Years After Milk Scare

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Food Fears Persist In China 2 Years After Milk Scare

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Food Fears Persist In China 2 Years After Milk Scare

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And we'll report next on food safety in China. Two years ago, we learned that Chinese powdered milk was being laced with the chemical melamine. The contaminated milk sickened more than 300,000 people and led to half a dozen infant deaths. Now many Chinese have become more careful about the food they buy, from milk to meat. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from Shanghai.

ROB GIFFORD: It's lunchtime in Shanghai's business district and the new middle class are out on their lunch break.�

Ms. WANG XUENI: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Thirty-two-year-old Wang Xueni is shopping in a supermarket near where she works for an investment company.�

Ms. WANG: (Through translator) I am very worried about the food safety now. To be honest, I don't trust the quality of the food at all - vegetables, fruit, meat or eggs.�

GIFFORD: Wang says the health scares surrounding milk powder so worried her that she only gave her daughter, now two years old, foreign milk powder, brought back by her husband from business trips. Now her daughter's eating solid foods. When Wang heard that an organic farm called Kaixin was starting up on the outskirts of Shanghai, she immediately went to have a look.�

Ms. WANG: (Through translator) I always buy organic food now anyway. Kaixin farm delivers to my home, and I know I can trust them because of the way they grow their vegetables.�

Mr. YUAN NING (Owner, Kaixin): (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Kaixin's owner, Yuan Ning, spent years in banking, but grew tired of the rat race and saw a business opportunity in running an organic farm that coincided with his own desire to live a simpler, healthier life.

Mr. YUAN: (Through translator) After the Sanlu milk scandal, we realized we were not eating safely. We had sacrificed our happiness and our health. In chasing money, we had forgotten the basic essence of life.

GIFFORD: A few years ago, Yuan says, there was almost no organic farming in China. Now it's becoming an industry, he says, as people become more and more concerned, especially for the health of their children.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

GIFFORD: Gao Zihan is nine months old, but she looks about twice that age. She sits with her father, Gao Feng, in a run down, two-room apartment beside a huge power station in the northern city of Changchun. She was a healthy baby, her father says, with a very healthy appetite for powdered milk. They used a Chinese brand called Shengyuan, and everything went well until she was about six months old, when she started bleeding.

Mr. GAO FENG: (Through translator) We went to many hospitals, but no one could tell us why she was bleeding from inside. It lasted just five to six days each time, just like a grown woman's menstrual period. In the end, the doctors concluded that it was my daughter's menstrual cycle starting. She's nine months old, but the doctors say her ovaries and her breasts are developing, too.

GIFFORD: Gao says he suspects the cause was milk powder infected with some kind of hormone. As soon as they switched to another brand, he says the bleeding decreased. The milk powder company, Shengyuan, in Beijing has vigorously denied any connection. The company did not return repeated attempts by NPR to contact them for a statement. Gao Feng has gathered medical records and even shocking photographs to back up his case.

Mr. GAO: (Through translator) The Chinese media can't report this anymore. We've called the company many times, but they stand by a government report that was issued saying there is no link.

GIFFORD: Other parents also contacted by NPR say their daughters have similar symptoms. But it's not just Chinese parents who say that food safety in China seems unaffected by the Sanlu scandal of two years ago.

Mr. RICHARD GELBER (Hotel Services Company Manager): You're asking me what has changed since Sanlu? I'll say nothing has changed since Sanlu. Nothing.

GIFFORD: Canadian Richard Gelber - a parent himself - has been in Shanghai for 15 years. He now runs Gusto, a hotel service company. Gelber says regulations are simply not enforced in China's food industry, and he has a wealth of horror stories about bleached mushrooms and dyed raspberries and hormone-injected milk. He says it's right down the food chain, including the so-called organic goods that the new middle class are buying.

Mr. GELBER: Why should I trust anything that I'm being told in this country? There is a lot to love about China and there's great business opportunities, but this is not Kansas here, and anything is possible. If you want to be here, you have to accept the good with the bad. And if you cannot accept it, well then, you need to leave.

GIFFORD: And many foreigners, horrified by the food safety situation, do exactly that. It's just that for ordinary Chinese people that, of course, is not an option.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Shanghai.

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