BEIJING — Shanghai grad student Wu Heng hadn't planned to become a food activist but he couldn't stop himself after reading a news story about cooks slathering pork in chemicals to make it look and smell like costlier cuts of beef.
“I never knew you could make fake beef!” said Wu, who described being shocked and disgusted by the revelation. “I suddenly felt I needed to do something, to create a platform so consumers could know about this kind of thing.”
The result of Wu's epiphany a year ago is the cheeky and informative food scandal database “Throw It Out the Window,” a homegrown resource that tries to alert the Chinese public to the many dangers lurking at the supermarket and on the restaurant table.
The site and other tech tools like it, including a new iPhone app that gives daily news feeds about the latest food scandals, underscore the deep anger in China over the country's persistent food safety problems and a new willingness among ordinary people to take the matter into their own hands.
Driven partly by the government's foot dragging on food safety, such grassroots activism is unusual in a country where citizen action is discouraged and often dangerous.
After reading about the fake beef problem a year ago, Wu, 26, dashed off an online appeal seeking help for the new project, his exuberance clear from the 17 exclamation points in his May 11, 2011, blog title that ended with a rallying cry: “Come on, we can change something.”
A few dozen volunteers now help Wu maintain the site, which is updated daily with Chinese language news reports about food dangers. It's become so popular it crashed from all the traffic on May 3. Wu says 5 million people visited his site over the last month and a half.
Thursday, the site had reports about maggots in hot dogs and a workshop that was churning out fake honey made from water, white sugar, thickener and coloring.
Wu, whose studies focus on modern Shanghai and are unrelated to food, said his crash course in contemporary food problems has steered him away from meat and milk, which seem plagued more than others by quality issues.
Wednesday, leading Chinese dairy company Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group Co. announced it was recalling a line of baby formula because of unusual levels of mercury.
Wu titled his “Throw It Out the Window” site in a nod to a story he'd read about U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt allegedly throwing a breakfast sausage out the window of the White House after reading about the state of meat processing in Chicago. Roosevelt's signature on legislation in 1906 paved the way for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
China has its own such administration, but responsibility for food safety is shared across a patchwork of agencies and offices, including ministries of health and agriculture, meaning problems frequently fall through the cracks. But whistle blowing and activism like Wu's pose a tough test for the Chinese government, which doesn't tolerate any political activism and only allows rights work for some issues, including health and food, within very narrow limits.
After a visit to China in 2010, a U.N. human rights envoy expressed concern about the prosecution and harassment of China's food safety advocates, citing the case of Zhao Lianhai, a Beijing writer who was sentenced to 2-1/2 years in jail “for inciting social disorder” after he organized parents of children sickened by tainted milk formula in 2008.