Mooncake scandal may show reluctance to waste food
By Doug Young
GROSS! That was my first reaction on reading about the latest food safety scandal in Shanghai, which involved the recycling of paste used to fill the famous mooncakes given out each year during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
I’m not a big fan of mooncakes, but this latest revelation in China’s never-ending series of food scandals certainly won’t make me any more likely to eat these unavoidable treats that suddenly appear in stores every September or October.
Each food safety scandal is different, even though all have the common theme of putting public health at risk and most involve greed.
Some scandals are the result of people trying to get a bit more money for their products, which was what happened when farmers watered down milk and spiked it with the industrial chemical melamine to mask the lower protein content.
Other cases are the result of laziness or stinginess or both, which was the case earlier this year when farmers near Shanghai dumped thousands of diseased dead pigs into the Huangpu River because they didn’t want to pay for proper disposal.
This latest scandal stems from another Chinese phenomenon whereby no one can ever bear to waste anything edible, even if it’s food that has potentially spoiled.
This mentality probably has its origins in leaner times when just getting enough to eat was a challenge for many people, and the thought of throwing away anything that was potentially eatable would have been unthinkable.
New shells with old fillings
City officials disclosed the new mooncake scandal at a recent press conference, reporting they broke 598 criminal cases of people harming public safety in the first half of the year. The case of recycled mooncake filling was one of 12 involving food safety, and was a media favorite due to its colorful and somewhat gross nature.
According to reports, a gang of six people took unsold mooncakes from 2012 and dug out their fillings, which included almond, lotus paste and other varieties. They then inserted the paste into new shells and baked them again to produce “fresh” mooncakes to be sold in grocery stores and wholesale markets. Altogether they earned 99,000 yuan (US$16,150).
The reports don’t say if anyone actually got sick from eating recycled mooncakes, and I suspect that no one was seriously injured. Both my Chinese and foreign friends often joke that many mooncakes given as gifts each year may already be one or two years old or even older, a result of the phenomenon known as “re-gifting,” as people often receive far more cakes each year than they can actually eat.
The situation is somewhat similar to fruit cakes in the West, which are usually given as presents around Christmas. Like the mooncakes, fruit cakes are also quite hard and indestructible, and many people find them unappetizing because they’re so heavy. But their durability makes them easy to stow in the freezer for a year or two, and then bring out for a quick defrosting to give as gifts during future Christmases.
I suspect that perhaps a third or more of all mooncakes given out each year never get eaten, which is why there’s so much leftover filling for unscrupulous people like the ones in this latest scandal.
More broadly speaking, I do think this particular scandal stems from the sometimes annoying habit among many Chinese of not wanting to throw away anything that might be edible.
I sometimes encounter this phenomenon in another form at restaurants, when a waiter accidentally brings me a dish I didn’t order. Rather than taking it back and replacing it with the correct one, however, the waiter will usually plead with me to accept the incorrect dish and also to pay for it.
I can sympathize a little with these waiters, as I suspect that some of the cost of the food may be deducted from their paychecks. They also probably get yelled at by their bosses when they make the wrong dish.
I can also understand the broader mentality of not wanting to waste food that is still eatable, especially when there are people who can’t get enough to eat elsewhere in the world. But it’s also time for some of these less scrupulous Chinese to realize that we’re living in more prosperous times, and also that actions like the case of the recycled mooncake filling can pose a real risk to public health.