On eating mushroom or not, Chinese trust 11-year-old, discredit authorities
Soon after words got out that a primary school student found through lab research that “mushrooms on the market are whitened,” food safety has been once again brought to the spotlight. Beijing’s Food Safety Office issued a spot check result that says “97.73% of mushrooms have passed muster.” China Edible Fungi Association was also quoted as saying “having no trust in lab results produced by a schooler.” Beijing Bureau of Trade and Industry said “The schooler’s test is unscientific.”
Internet users diverge greatly from the views of the authorities. A poll question on one Web site asks “Which one do you believe, a primary school student or Bureau of Trade and Industry?” Until Friday night, among the 3119 votes cast, 1122 went to “I believe the primary school student.” 656 said “It’s sad that a government agency is beneath a schooler.” 616 people selected “If Bureau of Trade and Industry denounces his result as unscientific, why not produce a scientific one?” Only 8 voted for the Bureau. Zhu Lijia, director of Department of Public Administration at Chinese Academy of Governance, said that the “mushroom test” prompts deep thought.
“I am very happy that my report is published in the newspaper. Now that everyone knows mushrooms might have been whitened, they will become increasingly aware of the practice and take precautions against it. Thus my purpose is achieved,” 11-year-old Zhang Hao said.
Zhang Hao is a member of “scientific inquiry class” of the Science and Technology Museum. Roast mushroom is one of his favorite dishes. This February, his mother suddenly forbade him to eat any mushroom because of the media’s coverage that revealed some mushrooms contain fluorescent whitening agents (FWA). Zhang Hao decided to find out the truth himself. Liu Jianhua, teacher at the Science and Technology Museum, helped him devise the plan. After preparatory arrangements such as doing research and sending out a questionnaire, Zhang Hao’s parents also requested Gao Ruifang, a PhD candidate at China Agricultural University, to instruct him.
On July 19, Zhang Hao and his mother bought 16 species of edible fungi at Beijing’s supermarkets, farmers’ market and produce wholesale market.
Zhang Hao said that he referred to the local standards of Sichuan Province for his lab test, which was the only set of standards he could find on the fluorescent whitening agent. The lab test was divided into four steps. First, he used currency detector to screen mushrooms; no fluorescent whitener found. Second, on July 20 and July 21, under Gao Ruifang’s instruction, he entered the darkroom of Institute of Agriculture and Biotechnology at China Agricultural University; illumination with 365 nm ultraviolet light in the darkroom showed that 12 sample mushrooms had light spots formed by fluorescent whitening agents. Third, he soaked uncontaminated mushrooms in four types of fluorescent whiteners and contrasted them before and after. Fourth, he carried out sensory examination of mushrooms found to contain FWA by observing, touching and smelling.
At the end of November, some media obtained the lab report authored by Zhang Hao from the Science and Tech Museum. Stories such as“Primary school student’s investigation shows 90% of mushrooms are whitened” made headlines, and drew attention from the public and government agencies.
On December 1, Beijing Food Safety Office issued a report of quality inspection of food on Beijing’s market. The report says among 132 samples taken from 13 supermarkets in Beijing, only three were found to contain fluorescent whiteners, rendering the qualification rate as high as 97.73%.
The primary school student says “90% of mushrooms are whitened,” while the government agency says “97.73% are safe.” Two results poles apart have created a buzz.
However, when the public was asked to choose whom to side, the 11-year-old won by a landslide. Only 8 out of 3119 votes went for Bureau of Trade and Industry. The rest voters expressed varying degrees of skepticism towards the government agency.
“Obviously, a simple test result (from the government agency) didn’t help the public dismiss their fears and scruples. On the contrary, information becomes more complex and confusing,” said He Bing, professor at China University of Political Science.
However, ever since the disclosure of the spot check result, no government agency has ever uttered a word to clarify the issue. Person in charge at Beijing Bureau of Trade and Industry said the schooler’s spirit of scientific exploration is praiseworthy, but they feel inappropriate to make comment as to if his lab test was scientific.
Zhang Hao’s parents and teachers offered explanation as to what may have caused the two results to differ radically. Their test took place in summer when mushrooms rot easily, so more whiteners may have been applied than in winter. They picked more mushrooms from farmers’ market and produce market, whereas the government agency only inspected mushrooms from supermarkets where stepped-up government oversight deters the practice. Besides, Zhang Hao tested mostly fresh mushrooms, whereas the government agency sampled more dried mushrooms than fresh ones. Last but not least, after their report went out, unscrupulous sellers may have shown some restraint.
Zhang Hao’s mother also stressed that “90% of mushrooms are whitened” is not Zhang Hao’s conclusion. Zhang Hao simply wrote in his lab report, “Of 16 samples, 12 contain fluorescent whitening agents. Therefore, FWA may be prevalently used for fresh mushrooms.”
The conclusion has been magnified by media and has caused widespread panic. Many consumer interviewed have stopped buying any mushroom.
“So far, the relevant department did not do its job well,” said Wang Xuejie, a professor at Hunan’ Communist Party school. He said its responsibility should be answering questions of the public and regaining trust.
“If the relevant party drops the act, communicates with the primary school student, invites citizens’ representatives for the sampling procedure and invites scientific research institutes for the testing procedure, will the public still be so skeptical?” said Zhu Lijia, director of Department of Public Administration at Chinese Academy of Governance.
“The government should also reflect on how to cope with supervision and report from individuals,” said He Bing, professor at China University of Political Science. He said that government should be more friendly to such supervision and accusation rather than treat it as enmity. Especially when it comes to food safety, harnessing supervision by the society is in fact a great way to settle issues.