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Food Safety Tips from the Doctor

“This is an American iceberg lettuce!” said my old Cantonese language teacher as he held it aloft to show the class. “The sunshine does not reach the inner leaves, which remain white and crisp and sweet. We eat it straight from the refrigerator – because in America we use Chemical fertilizer.”

“And this is a Chinese lettuce!” he went on. “It is much more nutritious, as the sunshine reaches every leaf to make it green. And we eat it cooked – because in China we use Human fertilizer!”

In other words, it is all good food, but you should cook it first. This story illustrates why Chinese people tend not to eat cold salads and also why so many foreigners have tummy troubles.Travel health experts still say ,“Cook it, or Peel it, or forget it!” This food rule still applies to a person wanting to have the lowest risk of gut upsets; items such as ice in drinks, salads, strawberries, raw meats and vegetables have been forbidden.

Shenzhen is rapidly changing. More Chinese now have flush toilets and hot showers, as more restaurants enforce strict hygiene in food preparation so foreigners with good local knowledge can bend the rules and stay well. However, many still get preventable tummy sickness. Newcomers are most likely to get sick when they assume that familiar looking food to western eyes is safe.

MILK AND MILK PRODUCTS - By September 2008, the world was well aware of tainted milk in China. Melamine poisoning was far more wide spread & harmful than people had previously suspected.In the aftermath, international health authorities have announced that products with production dates after September 2008 should be relatively Melamine-free. If you want to be completely sure the milk you drink is Melamine-free in the supermarket, milk from Australia, New Zeeland or France is available.

SALADS AND SNAIL PARASITES - It is safest to assume that salads and uncooked vegetables have faecal bacteria and snail parasites on them. Experienced expats who really want to eat these raw items need to wash them thoroughly and then soak for 10 minutes in water with 2 drops of iodine per litre.ORGANIC FOODSSome stores in Shenzhen have a section for these. There may be less use of chemical fertilizer and insecticide in cultivation of these foods, but the hygiene precautions remain the same.

DRINKING WATER - Shenzhen tap water is safe when it comes from the water treatment plant, but in many parts of Shenzhen with OLD water pipes there remains a risk that giardia and other gut germs can find their way into the water. So, boil tap water if you want to drink tea. Shenzhen tap water comes from reservoirs. Although it contains some calcium and magnesium, which show up as furry deposits in the kettle, it is good to remember that people get these same minerals when they buy dolomite capsules from the health food shops!  These are safe minerals.  Around other parts of China, about 1/3rd of drinking water is from groundwater, and in certain areas such as Inner Mongolia, there are public health problems due to heavy metals like cadmium and arsenic, which is similar to those found in Bangladesh.  Beijing does not use groundwater and is safe. In Shenzhen, it’s safest to buy a quality bottled water, and most deliver the large 18 liter bottles to your door.

FISH - The most common food, fish-wise, in China is freshwater carp from aquaculture. While it is healthy, it does not contain much of the essential fatty acids found in deep-sea fish, nor does it contain much mercury. Most foreigners find sorting through the fine carp bones too tedious and prefer the more expensive ocean fish. Mercury tends to be highest in the large predator fish, such as swordfish. Overall, health statistics still show health benefits from eating fish twice a week.

TOXIC PET FOOD – Nitrogen containing compounds, like Urea, are a good additive for ruminants like sheep and cattle where their special digestion enables conversion to protein. Western farmers will put urea and trace elements into salt licks to help the animals thrive when pasture is poor.  Melamine and Cyanuric acid are nitrogen-containing compounds obtainable cheaply as scrap from chemical processing. Their presence in foods can make laboratory tests show a higher protein content than the food truly has.  It used to be thought that the melamine waste was just some harmless filler; however, the deaths among pets and now humans have clearly shown the harm.

WASHING WITH SHENZHEN WATER – Wash the dishes with tap water and dish-washing liquid and let them drain – it is pretty safe.

MEAT – Chinese people tend to cook meat on the day it is purchased, and may then store the cooked meat in the fridge so as to use it as an ingredient in meals over some days if it is not consumed immediately. Foreigners tend to keep uncooked meat in the fridge for a convenient time but perhaps, the Chinese custom is safer.

Written by Dr. Hugh Nelson, Family Physician
Hugh graduated from the University of Western Australia in 1972. He has worked in Papua New Guinea, Australia, Africa, Britain and Hong Kong. He has diplomas in Child Health and in Tropical Medicine, and did post-graduate training in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.  He worked for 12 years in Central Australia doing a mixture of urban, rural and remote medicine which involved training and working with tribal aboriginal health workers and emergency medicine with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. He has now spent 29 years becoming a good all-round family doctor. He also has special experience and training in travel medicine, palliative care, pain management, recovery and psychological medicine, including trauma counselling, and has worked with International SOS for four years.



2 Comments for “Food Safety Tips from the Doctor”

  1. Touche. Sound arguments. Keep up the good work.

  2. Marshall Taplits

    Thanks for this! I was always unsure if the water was safe, even after boiling due to concerns over metals etc. Sounds like it’s ok for tea.

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The Contributor

Shenzhen resident since 2004, Jonathan has enjoyed careers in Art, Nursing, Clinic mangement. Comes from New York, and is on a mission to bring bagels to Shenzhen.

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