Your Cheatin’ Chinese Heart

Eating and drinking in China has recently become a very dodgy proposition. You can’t trust that the food in your bowl or the wine in your glass is safe. (“Safe” being a relative term.) People there are wary and growing nervous, suspecting not only street food, but also restaurants and packaged foods from grocery stores. Some are even getting angry, and sharing their anger online.

Moved by cut-throat competition and greed for profits, many Chinese farmers, dairies, food manufacturers and participants of the enormous food supply chain are finding creative and dangerous ways to cut corners and reduce costs. There are far too few food inspectors to cover the immense territory and overwhelming number of food industry players, and these comestible cops are ill-trained, ill-equipped and peppered with bribes. In this pressure cooker of a business environment, those food companies compelled to cheat feel that the risks of being caught are totally outweighed by the chance to make huge piles of money.

Something to keep in mind is that many of the largest companies are directly or indirectly controlled by the Peoples Bullying Party, and exist in order to benefit the government.

You might remember the food scandal a couple years ago, when some Chinese firms were caught mixing melamine — the plastic stuff used to make your spatula — into powdered baby milk. My high school chemistry teacher thought enough of me to call me “gourd head,” so keep in mind that my analysis and explanation may be a bit iffy. Apparently the chemicals in melamine ‘fooled’ instruments used to measure nutritional value, the test results suggesting that the milk powder was better for you than it really was. Hundreds of thousands of kids became sick, and some died.

The public backlash pressured the government into forcing the guilty milk powder producers to relabel the product as industrial glue. This glue was then sold to Chinese construction companies, who used it to build schools and hospitals. Sadly, these schools and hospitals collapsed shortly after they were filled with low-cost, low-quality desks and beds, which themselves had originally been waffles fortified with cardboard.

The government named a task force populated entirely by Chinese food industry executives to police the food industry. The head of this blue ribbon group, Wee Spanq-Yu, promised to be “the new sheriff in town.” The sheen is off his badge, however, since 26 tons of melamine-laced milk powder, supposedly outlawed and destroyed by now, were discovered a couple weeks ago in a Chongqing dairy company.

One horror story after another has turned up in the Chinese media, which in itself is a minor miracle, given the government’s paranoia about keeping bad news out of the public eye. The foods affected are common, everyday foods like pork and eggs, not exotica like lobster mac and cheese. Pork, for example leads all other meats in China, representing about two thirds of all meat consumed. As noted in the linked article in the first paragraph, there have been reports of pork found to be tainted with the drug clenbuterol, a steroid used in weight loss pills which can cause tremors and excessive sweating. Some pork had been sold as beef, after being braised in borax, a detergent additive handy for washing 20-mule teams. (“Beef with a clean aftertaste!”) Authorities found rice laced with cadmium, a heavy metal element that is spelled much like “calcium” but is not nearly as good for you.

The list goes on, with soy sauce spiced with arsenic, which should prove popular for families in small apartments eager to rid themselves of elderly relatives. And for those who want a tasty snack while enjoying a movie, food detectives have discovered popcorn and mushrooms enhanced with fluorescent bleach. Not only is your popcorn clean, but you can see it in the dark! How convenient for theatre-goers who drop their popcorn on the floor. Even eggs have been compromised. Yes, eggs, that most virginal of foods, protected by a shell as white as a wedding dress, have been despoiled. Rather than getting them the old fashioned way by catching them as they come out the business end of a chicken, Chinese authorities have found companies doing things Betty Crocker would never do. These fake eggs are made from a chemistry set, including such non-egg-istent ingredients as gelatin and paraffin. Now, I don’t remember what Mr Fawley may have taught us about paraffin, but I know it’s a hydrocarbon, and depending on its mood, it can be a solid, a liquid, or a gas — and it’s flammable. Your egg can be an omelet, AND a candle!

I don’t wish to sound insensitive, but even food from the irradiated parts of northeastern Japan sounds better than this.

Chinese wine drinkers are also in trouble. Wine drinking is relatively new in China, but growing fast. Hong Kong has become a hotbed of wine activity. Traditionally, Chinese mostly drink beer and baijiu, a white liquor distilled from frog sweat and mixed with rice vinegar, which sounds delicious. (To “skate on a lilly pad” is to be really tipsy on baijiu.) The growing middle class and exploding economy has allowed and encouraged greater discretionary spending, but now I sound like an economics professor.

Deep in the Chinese psyche — and I know a lot about the Chinese psyche because I prop up my laptop with Sun Tzu — is the need to display one’s status and prestige; appearance is everything. Often that prestige is propped up like a house of cards from parading imitations of brands like Gucci, Chanel and Rolex. So whenever middle managers host a banquet for family, friends, bosses and subordinates, they make sure that bottles of famous, expensive wines like Château Lafite and Pétrus are on the tables.

Now here’s the funny part: a Chinese wine drinker will pour himself a hefty glass of sensuous Bordeaux, and then … add Coke to it. (?) This is hard to wrap one’s mind around, and I am by no means a wine snob. Wine is wonderful because of its complexity, its variety of enticing flavors, and its unique ability to gain in complexity as it ages. All those delectable smells and flavors and nuances will be pretty much spoiled, lost in that sugary soda invented by a Georgia pharmacist in the 1880’s. (Coca-Cola is currently celebrating its 125th birthday.)

In a November, 2009 New Yorker article, Evan Osnos tells how Chinese wine drinkers were fond of mixing wine with soft drinks, and relates a popular saying, “Red wine and Sprite — the more you drink, the sweeter you’ll be.” Other observers note that “some Chinese consumers are said to dilute even the most expensive clarets with lemonade.” (“Claret” is actually a British term for red Bordeaux. Interesting that the famous ‘claret jug’ that is the prize — along with cash — for the British Open golf tournament is a beautiful silver jug for French wine.)

Rocketing demand for the elite wines not only propels the prices into outer space, but causes shortages; unfortunately those pesky principles of demand and pricing obey the laws of economics, not physics. Wine lovers are peeved that prices of the good stuff are climbing out of reach, while the hyperyummy vintages are getting really hard to find. (“Hyperyummy” is a technical wine-tasting term.)

On the one hand, selling mountains of cases of wine is what every winery and distributor wishes. But on the other hand, the winemakers want their products to be appreciated and cherished. Wine that has taken years if not decades to produce, requires grape vines to be planted and allowed to mature, if Mother Nature is on your side. Each year the grapes grow and once again plenty of luck is involved, since the combination of sun, rain and temperature must be just right. The grapes get picked and then the juice ferments into wine, which is then aged in costly wood barrels for years before the wine is finally bottled. Most reputable wineries age the bottled wine on site to ensure that it is well looked after during its adolescence. It is a time-consuming, hands-on process involving luck, skill, passion and patience. To turn the contents of an exquisite bottle into the prime ingredient for a wine cooler causes chafing in sensitive emotional areas.

There are a variety of shady techniques used to cheat Chinese wine drinkers. Similar to a common ruse in the Old West, when bar owners watered down whiskey to make more money, some Chinese wine merchants will buy big quantities of wine, and then dilute it with water, and add sugar and various chemicals to ‘improve’ the taste. Another strategy used by unscrupulous wine salesmen in China is to buy empty bottles of famous vintages, the big name stuff that is sought after the most. They are forthright in asking that the bottles be in pristine condition with perfectly clean labels. They then fill the bottles with lesser wine — or “plonk” to use one of my favorite British words — and sell it as the real stuff for exhorbitant prices. Unbelievable.

Respectable people in the China wine trade, such as Westerners there to teach the Chinese about wine, insist that empty bottles be thoroughly smashed after use, to ensure they won’t go into this perfidious pipeline.

In the latest Chinese wine scandal, evidence of corruption and conspicuously luxurious consumption at Sinopec has fueled an angry outpouring from regular citizens. Sinopec is an oil refiner and China’s largest company, if measured by revenue and not by the number of employees or the sharpness of their pencils. It is 75% owned by the Communist Party, and top officials are appointed not by a board of directors, as in corporate America, but by the secretive Chinese government. Top-level Sinopec managers bought nearly 100 cases of exquisite wine for around $250,000. Some bottles cost more than $2,000 each.

Helping to light the fuse of popular anger was the fact that gas prices had just hit new highs, and Sinopec’s profits were 25% higher than the previous quarter’s. One seething blogger asked, “is Sinopec an oil company or a wine merchant?” It is not clear if the wine was consumed with Coke — some of the wine has been quaffed — or if it was intended for gifts or bribes. Evidently the Guangdong district manager on whom the spotlight fell has been demoted but not fired.

My sources reveal that he has an interesting new function at Sinopec. One of my deep-cover intelligence gatherers, disguised as a window cleaner, sent a Morse code message by tapping his squeegee. He was cleaning windows outside a conference room, and he overheard the executives hammering out a plan for a new wine to be marketed by Sinopec. It’s to be made by mixing gasoline, paraffin and other chemicals, red food color and Coke.

The disgraced manager is to be the chief taste tester.

“Your cheatin’ heart will make you weep
You’ll cry and cry and try to sleep
But sleep won’t come the whole night through
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you.”
~Hank Williams

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