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Using new media, Chinese try out food activism

Friday - 6/15/2012, 4:30pm  ET

Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) - Shanghai grad student Wu Heng hadn't planned to become a food activist but he couldn't stop himself after reading a news story about cooks slathering pork in chemicals to make it look and smell like costlier cuts of beef.

"I never knew you could make fake beef!" said Wu, who described being shocked and disgusted by the revelation. "I suddenly felt I needed to do something, to create a platform so consumers could know about this kind of thing."

The result of Wu's epiphany a year ago is the cheeky and informative food scandal database 'Throw It Out the Window,' a homegrown resource that tries to alert the Chinese public to the many dangers lurking at the supermarket and on the restaurant table.

The site and other tech tools like it, including a new iPhone app that gives daily news feeds about the latest food scandals, underscore the deep anger in China over the country's persistent food safety problems and a new willingness among ordinary people to take the matter into their own hands.

Driven partly by the government's foot dragging on food safety, such grassroots activism is unusual in a country where citizen action is discouraged, and often dangerous.

After reading about the fake beef problem a year ago, Wu, 26, dashed off an online appeal seeking help for the new project, his exuberance clear from the 17 exclamation points in his May 11, 2011 blog title that ended with a rallying cry: "Come on, we can change something."

A few dozen volunteers now help Wu maintain the site, which is updated daily with Chinese language news reports about food dangers. It's become so popular, it crashed from all the traffic on May 3. Wu says 5 million people visited his site over the last month and a half.

On Thursday, the site had reports about maggots in hot dogs and a workshop that was churning out fake honey made from water, white sugar, thickener and coloring.

Wu, 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.

On Wednesday, leading Chinese dairy company Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group Co. announced it was recalling a line of baby formula because of unusual levels of mercury.

Wu titled his "Throw it Out the Window" site in a nod to a story he'd read about U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt allegedly throwing a breakfast sausage out the window of the White House after reading about the state of meat processing in Chicago. Roosevelt's signature on legislation in 1906 paved the way for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

China has its own State Food and Drug Administration but responsibility for food safety is shared across a patchwork of agencies and offices, including ministries of health and agriculture, meaning problems frequently fall through the cracks. The government has shown itself so incapable that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was again this week promising more action.

Wen called for greater public involvement in food safety and even said whistle blowers should be rewarded.

But such whistle blowing and activism pose a tough test for the Chinese government, which doesn't tolerate any political activism and only allows rights work for some issues, including health and food, within very narrow limits.

Those who have tried to expose food problems or pushed too hard for compensation in the aftermath of scandals have faced persecution.

After a visit to China in 2010, a U.N. human rights envoy expressed concern about the prosecution and harassment of China's food safety advocates, citing the case of Zhao Lianhai, a Beijing writer who was sentenced to 2-1/2 years in jail "for inciting social disorder" after he organized parents of children sickened by tainted milk formula in 2008.

Olivier De Schutter, the Human Rights Council's independent expert on the right to food, said such actions had a "chilling effect" on food safety activism in China and called on the government to allow free expression to play a role in defending the public's right to safe food.

"Doing nongovernment work, or any public welfare work in China is risky," said Wu, the 'Throw it Out the Window' founder.

Though he's on the radar of Shanghai officials, they don't so far seem to see his work as threatening.

Last month, the Shanghai Food Safety Office asked to meet Wu, a request that made him think the site was about to be shut down.

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