16 Alarming Facts About Food in China You Must Know Before You Go

May 20, 2019 Updated: May 21, 2019

Picture this: You have a travel plan for China. You look at a Google Map of China, wondering where you should land so you can start your journey with some nice local Chinese food. After deciding, you are set and ready to go.

Not quite.

The word China often conjures ideas and images of amazing oriental charm. However, today’s China is a far cry from the seemingly exotic land of the past. A lot has changed since China’s last change of leadership, and tourists planning to visit China, like you, would be better prepared for the trip with some insider insights into the modern-day Middle Kingdom.

In this article, we will focus on food safety, and share 16 facts you must know before you go. Or, for some travelers, you may wish you had known before you left.


Table of Contents

Food Hygiene in China

Food Delivery in China

  1. Food Preparation
  2. Delivery Men
  3. Food Containers

Organic Food in China

Food safety in China—common incidents

  1. Rotten meat used in fast food
  2. Indigestible bubble tea pearls
  3. Gel-injected shrimp
  4. Bacon
  5. Beef
  6. Mutton
  7. Wines
  8. Table salt
  9. Baby formula
  10. Tofu

Cause of the food safety crisis: the influence of the Chinese Communist Party

Food Hygiene in China

In China, there is constant news coverage on scandals regarding food hygiene problems. From carts frying up meals on the street to major national companies, the entire spectrum of food and drink-makers in China have displayed some degree of bad, or even unhealthy practices to their consumers.

There is no catch-all method for spotting bad food in China, as many scandals are only discovered after the fact. The best thing to do is to become aware of some of the following cases that have already been exposed in China.

Food Delivery in China

China has a bustling food delivery business. However, before you make an online order, you will definitely want to learn of some of these recent industry scandals.

Food Preparation

A delivery food scandal, reported in November 2018, revealed that a food producer used expired and contaminated ingredients to make 400,000 meal boxes per day at an unsightly production site. There was a strong online backlash, but history has repeatedly seen similar incidents occur due to lack of responsible government regulation and enforcement and a loss of moral civility.

Food Delivery Issue in China
A Mei Tuan (China’s popular food delivery ordering app) delivery man was found eating the food to be delivered in China

Delivery Men

Apart from food production, the delivery process may also be a cause for concern. There have been many cases where delivery men from one of China’s largest food delivery networks, called “Mei Tuan,” were caught eating their delivery food and even spitting in the food.

Food Containers

China’s state media CCTV reported on a scandal involving meal box production in April 2019. Many meal box manufacturers processed medical waste products, such as urine sample bags or blood storage bags, to produce hundreds of thousands of food containers daily.

Other Chinese plastic makers were exposed for making products from recycled medical waste and soiled diapers in March.

Chinese food hygiene is a health safety concern, and one must be aware of problems with production methods before going on a trip there.

Organic Food in China

If you are a hardcore organic follower, be ready for a challenge.

Finding authentic organic local food or products in China can be difficult, since widespread severe environmental pollution makes it hard to go organic.

If you do see something labeled as organic, ask for more information and check again. Be aware that the fabrication of certificates in China is common and ill-regulated. Based on the USDA, Chinese companies accounted for 9 out of 23 cases of fraudulent organic certificates between February 2011 and June 2013.

Food Safety in China

Some major food safety issues in China also captured international attention. Sometimes, many outsiders and even mainland Chinese people wonder why food safety problems are so rampant and persistent.


A general rule of thumb is that all tap water in China must be boiled before consuming. Large portions of water supplied to major cities are considered undrinkable, according to The Guardian.

A main culprit is the Chinese regime’s unwillingness to crack down on lucrative producers that pollute water with by-products.

Rotten Meat Products

Incidents of using rotten meat as raw ingredients for food products have been around for many years.

Some may be thinking bigger brands may be more trustworthy. However in a rotten meat scandal in 2014, big names like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Starbucks in China were reported to have used rotten meat products.

Indigestible Bubble Tea Pearls

There is no shortage of bubble tea shops on the streets in larger cities of China, who sell at a lower price compared to America. However, be wary of the tapioca pearls.

In 2015 bubble tea pearl scandal, a TV reporter in Shandong province found undigested pearls present in her stomach during a CT scan. Further investigations revealed that the “pearls” were made from old tires and soles of leather shoes.

The case reflects the fact that anything could happen to you if you are not careful with food in China.


Gel-injected Shrimp

The problem of gel-injected shrimp has persisted for over a decade and still occurs regularly. These shrimp are injected with potentially unsafe gel before they are sold to add weight and thus earn a greater profit.

For your safety, buying live shrimp is the best solution since the injection kills shrimps.


A reported 70 percent of wines produced in China are fake.

As a tourist, you are a particularly easy target for crooked sellers of counterfeit wines that are stamped with expensive-looking labels but are very likely made with cheap fruit juice.

Unless you have trustworthy local friends, buying wine yourself can be tricky.

Table Salt

Due to lax regulations, industrial salts can find their way to dining tables in China. In April 2016, 35 tons of industrial salts were packaged as edible salts and sold for large profits.

Industrial salts for human consumption contain poisonous metals like lead, arsenic, and mercury that can cause nerve damage and cancer.

china food safety - baby formula
A Chinese baby plays beside tins of milk powder made by NASDAQ-listed Synutra (L-1) at a supermarket in Beijing on August 9, 2010, after parents and doctors expressed fears that hormones in Synutra had caused babies to develop breasts prematurely. (CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO)

Baby Formula

We should not forget the major poisonous baby formula incident of 2008. Six infants died, and more than 300,000 babies fell ill due to melamine-containing baby formula. Melamine is used in plastic and fertilizer production but was added to the milk powder to increase its protein content.

People in mainland China have lost their faith in domestic milk powder products. If their financial condition allows it, they try all means to import safe baby formula from regions like Hong Kong and New Zealand.

If you are taking your baby with you, make sure you bring enough baby formula with you. Try to avoid buying domestically-produced milk powder in China. Even the fresh milk in China may not be at the same quality level as the kind you normally get from your own country.


If you are in China, spend more time carefully choosing your breakfast bacon, unless it is clearly labeled as imported from a safe country.

The recent epidemic of African Swine Fever in China has severely damaged pork production. As of May, some producers have gone as far as selling infected meat.

There was a large-scale bacon scandal in 2015 across 11 areas in China. 110 suspects purchased pigs that died of diseases at cut-rate prices and processed them into bacon, ham, and oil.

china food safety - fake beef
An officer with the Beijing Health Supervision Institute inspects spoiled pork at a freezer of the Huilongguan Chengbei Trade Market on July 28, 2005 in Changping County of Beijing, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)


Many Chinese vendors have developed a way to make pork look like beef using chemical reactions and glazing. However, the process makes the meat hazardous and cancerous.


Similarly, dishonest vendors who find little profit in selling real mutton are disguising rat, mink, and fox meat with chemicals and promoting them as mutton.

The fake mutton in China was so widespread that in 2013 that police seized 20,000 tons of fake mutton, and arrested more than 900 people—all within three months.


This popular staple food for many vegetarians can go wrong in China too.

In 2012, it was reported that food safety inspectors in Hunan Province discovered that some manufacturers used iron sulfate, livestock, and even human feces to speed up the fermenting process of Tofu.


In 2017, China reported fake rice, suspected to be made from synthetic industrial resin and potatoes. It can cause deadly results if consumed.

To identify fake rice, try dissolving it in boiling hot oil. If it dissolves then you’ve got to find yourself some different rice.

Cause of the Food Safety Crisis

You may feel shocked after reading about so many food safety incidents in China. The sad truth is that there are many more such incidents, but the international coverage on the issue was never wide and deep enough to show you the true picture.

The Epoch Times published an article dedicated to explaining the root cause of the pervasive food safety problems in China. Here is the summary of the article for your reference.

  • The systematic elimination of moral responsibility by the Chinese Communist Party
  • Rapid industrialization with little regard to environmental sustainability
  • Former communist party leader Jiang Zemin promoted a culture of corruption
  • Officials have privately owned farms
  • The Chinese Communist Party only cares about the appearance of prosperity in China

In Conclusion

Divinely splendid Chinese culture mesmerizes people around the world. Yet, contemporary China under the Communist regime, especially after the devastating Cultural Revolution, is a mere shadow of many people’s positive impression.

For your trip to China, we kindly recommend you read more about current affairs in China so you will have a safer journey.