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In China, what you eat tells who you are

COLUMN ONE

In a nation reeling from tainted-food scandals, organic products are mostly reserved for the rich and political elite. Chinese government officials have exclusive suppliers, who do not advertise.

September 16, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Organic vegetables grow behind a 6-foot fence at the Beijing Customs Administration Vegetable Base and Country Club. Ordinary people cant go in there, a neighbor says.
Organic vegetables grow behind a 6-foot fence at the Beijing Customs Administration… (Barbara Demick, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Beijing — At a glance, it is clear this is no run-of-the-mill farm: A 6-foot spiked fence hems the meticulously planted vegetables and security guards control a cantilevered gate that glides open only to select cars.

"It is for officials only. They produce organic vegetables, peppers, onions, beans, cauliflowers, but they don't sell to the public," said Li Xiuqin, 68, a lifelong Shunyi village resident who lives directly across the street from the farm but has never been inside. "Ordinary people can't go in there."

Until May, a sign inside the gate identified the property as the Beijing Customs Administration Vegetable Base and Country Club. The placard was removed after a Chinese reporter sneaked inside and published a story about the farm producing organic food so clean the cucumbers could be eaten directly from the vine.

Elsewhere in the world, this might be something to boast about. Not in China. Organic gardening here is a hush-hush affair in which the cleanest, safest products are largely channeled to the rich and politically connected.

Many of the nation's best food companies don't promote or advertise. They don't want the public to know that their limited supply is sent to Communist Party officials, dining halls reserved for top athletes, foreign diplomats, and others in the elite classes. The general public, meanwhile, dines on foods that are increasingly tainted or less than healthful — meats laced with steroids, fish from ponds spiked with hormones to increase growth, milk containing dangerous additives such as melamine, which allows watered-down milk to pass protein-content tests.

"The officials don't really care what the common people eat because they and their family are getting a special supply of food," said Gao Zhiyong, who worked for a state-run food company and wrote a book on the subject.

In China, the tegong, or special supply, is a holdover from the early years of Communist rule, when danwei, work units of state-owned enterprises, raised their own food and allocated it based on rank. "The leaders wanted to make sure they had enough to eat and that nobody poisoned their food," said Gao.

In the 1950s, Soviet advisors helped the Chinese set up a food procurement department under the security apparatus to supply and inspect food for the leadership, according to a biography of Mao Tse-tung written by his personal physician. Lower levels of officialdom were divided into 25 gradations of rank that determined the quantity and quality of rations.

In modern-day China, it is the degradation of the environment and a limited supply of healthful food that is fueling the parallel food system for the elite.

"We flash forward 50 years and we see the only elements of China society getting food that is reliable, safe and free of contaminants are those cadres who have access to the special food supply," said Phelim Kine of the Hong Kong office of Human Rights Watch.

In the capital, special supply farms are located near the airport, home to wealthier expatriates and many international schools, and to the northwest, beyond the miasma of pollution emanating from the overcrowded, traffic-choked central city.

In the western foothills, the exclusive Jushan farm first developed to supply Mao's private kitchen still operates under the auspices of the state-run Capital Agribusiness Group, providing food for national meetings. A state-owned company, the Beijing 2nd Commercial Bureau, says on its website that it "supplies national banquets and meetings, which have become the cradle of safe food in Beijing."

The State Council, China's highest administrative body, has its own supplier of delicacies, down to salted duck eggs.

"We have supplied them for almost 20 years," said a spokesman at the offices of Weishanhu Lotus Foods, in Shandong province. "Our product cannot be bought in an ordinary supermarket as our volume of production is very little."

Organic farmers say they face pressure to sell their limited output to official channels.

"The local government would like us to give more products to officials and work units, but we think it is important that individuals can enjoy our product," said Wang Zhanli, whose organic dairy in Yanqing, just beyond the most frequented tourist sections of the Great Wall, received certification in 2006.

At his Green Yard dairy, the technology is imported from Holland. The cows graze on grass free of pesticides and are milked in a sterile barn by women in white caps who look more like laboratory aides than milkmaids.

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