China Food Scare: A Dash of Racism

As a recent late afternoon transformed into early evening, the staff at Manhattan's China 1 Antique Lounge restaurant prepared for its 6 p.m. opening. Red, silk-covered lanterns adorned the ceilings of this empty restaurant, which fuses Chinese and American cuisines.

To give it an authentic appearance, the decor was meticulously selected from an area of China called Ningbo.

But the large aquatic tank with Chinese fish, intricate woodwork and sheer drapes covering the hidden nooks may not soothe patrons' fears after recent Chinese food scares.

Owner Andrew Krauss said the business doesn't use Chinese food imports, and he hopes that consumers will distinguish between Asian-American restaurants and those that might serve tainted food imported from China.

Krauss said there should be absolutely nothing to fear, but he conceded that factors like the food tainted in China have the potential to affect certain small businesses.

'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome'

For decades, stereotypes of uncleanliness have accompanied not only Chinese food in America but Asian edibles in general.

The recent reports of imported tainted pet food, toothpaste and, more recently, seafood have brought Chinese products to the forefront of the news. These scares about food imported from China might have unintentionally reinforced some people's fears about Asian food.

There's even a name for these fears -- Chinese restaurant syndrome -- according to medlineplus.gov, a Web site run by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, which defines the syndrome as "collection of symptoms that some people experience after eating Chinese food. A food additive called monosodium glutamate (MSG) has been implicated, but it has not been proved to be the substance that causes this condition."

Symptoms can include headaches, flushing, sweating, a sense of facial pressure, of swelling, chest pain and numbness or burning around the mouth.

Despite providing more than one-third of the food imported into the United States, including half of its garlic, 40 percent of its apple juice and 80 percent of its vitamin C, China has a reputation as a food exporter that remains at least partially soiled.

Krauss said none of his customers have expressed worries about tainted food, but they have questioned him about MSG, because they've seen so many reports on the subject. His restaurant doesn't use it.

"As soon as it's on a consumer's mind, they ask," he said.

An Issue Bigger Than Food?

While restaurant owners like Krauss can take steps to alleviate their customers' fears, some in the Chinese American community fear that tainted imports could have a bigger cultural impact on people of Chinese descent living in the United States.

Lani Wong, the head of the National Association of Chinese-Americans, said the media coverage of such events will definitely affect Asian Americans across the country.

"Of course, all the negative stories are going to impact all of us staying here," she said. "I think it's just stereotyping, putting us in the same category as everything bad."

Wong said many Chinese Americans feel pressure when something negative happens in China, because they believe Americans look at them differently. And because the rise of China as a developing economic power has become a hot news topic, any reports of improprieties will be circulated widely in the news, she said.

"The Chinese food scare fits into the stereotype that we are substandard and just not good enough," Wong said.

She cited the example of a recent video that appeared earlier this month of a food exposé in China. A freelance reporter for a Beijing television station reported on street vendors who used chemically soaked cardboard to fill meat buns.

The video and pictures circulated on the Internet and caused a major buzz in Internet chatrooms worldwide. What received less attention was that the story was exposed as a hoax less than a week later.

"No one is going to report that was a hoax," Wong said. "Everyone is going to report that cardboard is going into meat dumplings."

Wong went as far as to say she believed racism played a role in the way the Chinese were portrayed in light of the food scare.

"I think it's just stereotyping, putting us in the same category as everything bad," Wong said.

The Chinese Reaction

The Chinese themselves were also disturbed by the reports of tainted food. Ideas of tainted edibles are disturbing for a culture that centers itself around food, Wong said.

"Food is very important," Wong said. "Food is almost like a comforting thing in daily life. … They love to eat good food and appreciate it."

Cuisine plays a critical role in holidays like the Chinese New Year, and connects closely to most Chinese celebrations. Parties feature an abundance of food in family-style dishes. People are encouraged to share, unlike the more individual plates seen on American tables.

"No people on earth are so engrossed in food as the Chinese, for whom it is not just craft, pleasure and sustenance but the fundamental building block of society," wrote Jeff Yang in an editorial for sfgate.com, the Web site for the San Francisco Chronicle. "So for the Chinese, tainted food is more than a health hazard -- it's a kind of sacrilege."

For their part, the Chinese believe they have taken food and drug safety seriously. The former official in charge of the country's food safety was executed earlier this month after he was found guilty of accepting more than $800,000 worth of bribes to overlook some of the country's food safety problems.

"They'd be better off hiring 20 more and firing that guy and training them properly," Krauss said. He added it behooves the United States to aid the Chinese in making a better system , rather than disseminating articles about tainted food and promoting stereotypes.

But Wong said the swift action was a sign the developing nation with the world's third biggest economy was feeling pressure from the global market.

Problems With Other Imports

Krauss noted China was likely not the only country with such a problem.

India had black pepper tainted with salmonella, and some Mexican crabmeat has been found to be too filthy to eat. Even Denmark had an incident in which its candy was mislabeled. And according to the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. inspectors have stopped more shipments from India and Mexico in the last year than they had from China.

Last month, a California-based United Food Group voluntarily recalled approximately 75,000 pounds of ground beef products because they may have been contaminated with E. coli. The beef was distributed in the Western United States and came from American suppliers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon and Utah, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

But those facts don't alleviate the fears of a backlash that business owners who sell Chinese food products are likely to feel. The attention will affect more than just Asian-themed and Asian-owned restaurants but also Asian grocers, Wong said.

Krauss, the owner of China 1 Antique Lounge, said he hopes customers will keep the recent problems in perspective.

"If you put the microscope to other exporters, you'd probably start finding tainted goods," Krauss said.

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