A bite of poisoned apple: Have media in China gone too far in food safety reporting?

Alia | June 13th, 2012 - 4:42 am

On May 11, Beijing News featured an investigative piece titled “Many Red Fuji Apples in Yantai Grow in Poisoned Bags”. Like many other food safety news in China, the story spread like virus on the Chinese internet. Yet unlike other recent food safety scandals, apple farmers in Yantai fought back, denouncing claims of wide use of poisoned apple bags. The story has sparked heated debates about whether reporting food safety stories in China has become a hype.

Bagging is a commonly-used technique to protect apples (and many other fruits) from direct exposure to pesticides or other potential outside damages.Paper bags are typically used to wrap around green apples until ripe.

Supposedly poisoned bag with pesticide powders inside.

It was reported in the Beijing News article that paper bags coated with two prohibited pesticides, asomate and Tuzet, were widely used in local apple farms in Yantai, a region known for its Red Fuji apples. According the article, even when everybody knew very well that the use of pesticided bags was illegal, many still chose to use these bags in order to produce good-looking apples that feel smooth and are dark-spot free.

Journalist Wang Ruifeng described that suspicious white powders with irritating smells were found inside these bags. Liu Guoqiang, a local apple farmer interviewed in the article, said: “There are pesticides inside these bags. We call them poisoned bags. They are prohibited.” According to him, many local farmers would wear gloves and masks when bagging apples. Some are even covered from head to toe, just like wearing “hazard and contamination protection suits.”

The article soon got viral, like any food safety related news. Only hours later, Red Fuji apple from Yantai became the new item on many people’s eat-or-die list. But a day later, on May 12, a netizen on Sina Weibo under the name of 涂几要做积极向上好骚年, a Yantai native whose family owns an apple farm, started to refute what the article described. She called the accusations “unacceptable” and blamed Beijing News journalists for “irresponsible reporting” and “over generalization” because clearly the journalists “lack basic knowledge of the apple industry in Yantai and how bagging works.”

The 10k bags at home are each wrapped individually. 

She shared photos from her family’s apple farm on Sina Weibo and explained that the very reason of using bags is to prevent apples from direct contact with pesticides or other chemicals used in farming. She showed several pictures of farmers snapping at bags by mouth and explained that the use of gloves and hats are for long hours of labor under the sun – each bag needs to be wrapped around apples by hand.

Mom is bagging.

Mother-in-low is helping

Her Weibo posts were soon picked up by netizens and thus a debate about how to report food safety issues in China started. So far, reactions to the story have been mixed. More netizens thought that one cannot be careful enough when it comes to food safety and that journalists should expose problems no matter what because, like 活著就要面帶微笑 commented, “nothing is impossible in China.” Given China’s endless food safety scandals, it is understandable that people don’t want to take even the slightest risk. What’s noteworthy in the current case is that a considerate amount of netizens actually thought that the journalists went too far.

Many held the view that reporting is OK but it has to be based on facts and sufficient research because it cost much more to re-build a brand image than to destroy one. A seemingly justice article may harm the livelihood of thousands of innocent farmers.  Like pepper米饭胡  commented: “I agree that we should expose food safety issues no matter what it takes. But the bottom line is to report “reality.” There may be toxic apples, but how many? Where they are told to? How much they account for the entire apple production? To denounce the entire Yantai apple industry without first getting these key information straight will do great harm to those hard-working apple farmers.”

While some is pointing out the potential harm such reporting may cost, others are questioning whether the media has been “hyping” food safety news intentionally just to increase readership. As  gb200312 commented: “Over generalization and hyping have become the norm among Chinese media. It costs nothing to start a rumor.”

Usually, the only voices heard about food safety related news in China are condemnations. The emergence of such debate is interesting and is likely to call for more robust reporting.

Netizen 北京卜凡 , who has been following the news closely, left the following message:

“I just talked with Wang Ruifeng (reporter of the poisoned apple bags article) for about 20 mins on the phone and briefly discussed the case. Wang said 1) the article did over-generalize because they only checked two places; 2) it is true that he only interviewed one farmer; 3) he received a lot threatening calls today; 4) Beijing News will have another report out very soon to explain and comment on the case.”

 

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One Response to “A bite of poisoned apple: Have media in China gone too far in food safety reporting?”

  1. [...] A bite of poisoned apple: Have media in China gone too far in food safety reporting? | Offbeat China “I just talked with Wang Ruifeng (reporter of the poisoned apple bags article) for about 20 mins on the phone and briefly discussed the case. Wang said 1) the article did over-generalize because they only checked two places; 2) it is true that he only interviewed one farmer; 3) he received a lot threatening calls today; 4) Beijing News will have another report out very soon to explain and comment on the case.” [...]

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