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Lax food hygiene leaves bad taste

(Global Times)

09:12, April 26, 2013

Illustrate by Luo Xuan/GT

It's hard to meet a youngster in Beijing who does not think that food safety in China is a serious issue. Aside from the infamous food scandals, many university students also consider street food to be dirty and highly recommend foreigners and each other to refrain from eating in places which don't appear clean.

I usually respond to them that for my weak Western stomach, luck has played the most definitive role when it comes to food safety. I'm usually fine after eating street food, but I might have the runs after dining in a respectable-looking restaurant. I have never stopped to think about it. My guess is, it often depends on the people who cook and serve the food we eat.

A few weeks ago, I went to get takeout at one of the on-campus canteens at the university where I work. The one I chose served as a faculty and staff free dining hall at lunchtime and transformed into a students' canteen for dinner. At lunch time it's a model of immaculacy, with the smiling staff wearing gloves, hairnets and wiping every minor spill. It's not so bad at dinner time, except that the staff does not smile so much. Why be polite to students, after all.

I was ordering my food when I experienced something which made me completely dumbfounded. One of the canteen staff members walked past the tray of fresh steaming rice, and accidentally knocked the spoon, used to serve rice, on the floor. Shockingly, she picked it up and put it right on top of the same tray with the rice. I was furious and started shouting at the woman, telling her that "we were not pigs, but people" and was about to call the manager of the canteen, when other staff members came to her rescue and quickly took the tray away to the back, probably so they could bring it back out 10 minutes after I'd left.

The anger eventually went away, but what left the bad taste in my mouth was the reaction on my side of the counter. Dozens of students trying to get their food saw this and did absolutely nothing, as though they believed in the "5-second rule" as well. These same students, who like to bitch about food safety in their country, did absolutely nothing when they were basically offered to eat from the floor, and pay for it with their own money.

A week later, in one of my classes, we discussed a topic that was somehow related to food safety. The students suggested that the reason for high-profile cases lay in a lack of strict regulations. I responded they should take some responsibility for ensuring their food is clean, and told them about my recent experience. They tried to argue that it was not the same, but I'm convinced that looking at one's own environment is a place to start. No regulation will help those who are willing to pay for the food from the floor when there are other options available.

It might be that other options are limited, though. A week later, in a different canteen, I noticed that a man who was putting food in my takeaway plastic bag had his finger, wrapped in a dirty bandage, inside the bag. I pointed this out to him, turned around and left without paying.

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