Chinese journalist Zhou Qing, a critic of the regime, unearthed political dynamite in his two-year investigation of China's food industry. He interviewed grocers, restaurant owners, farmers and food factory managers for an exposé for which he won a prize as part of the German "Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage" in 2006.
His book is a dark account of a ruthless food mafia that stops at nothing to maximize its profits, for example by using contraceptives to accelerate the growth of fish stocks, lengthening the shelf-life of cucumbers with highly toxic pesticide DDT, using hormones and poisoned salt in food production and putting absurd amounts of antibiotics in meat.
The investigation was risky. "It was more dangerous than chasing drug dealers," Zhou, who lives in Beijing, recalled in a speech in Heidelberg, southwestern Germany, this month.
Anything goes when it comes to cutting production costs, said Zhou. By comparison, the culprits in recent German scandals about rotten meat seem like model butchers.
Zhou said uncontrolled greed had caused a food disaster of unimaginable proportions. "I can only warn you never to go in a restaurant." The danger of food producers being taken to task for their actions is slight. Everything disappears in China's endless bureaucracy, he said.
Zhou's claims may sound exaggerated, but they're borne out by recent developments. In early December the Shanghai city council slapped an export ban on products made by the Shanghai Mellin Food Company after cancer-causing substances were found in its pork products.
In July the former director of the state food and drug supervisory authority, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed after being convicted of taking bribes to award licences for forged drugs, some of which had lethal side effects.
Increase in Cancer Cases
The children are the biggest sufferers, said Zhou. Poisoned baby food has led to severe diseases and physical deformities. Zhou writes that 200,000 to 400,000 people fall victim to poisoned food each year. A third of cancer cases, which are increasing at double-digit rates, can be attributed to food, he writes.
Zhou spent two years in jail for taking part in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. After his release he founded a newspaper but had to shut it down after pressure from the authorities. Since then he has worked as an author, covering human rights abuses and the origins of the SARS epidemic.
The title of his book on the food industry -- "What Kind of God?" -- refers to the importance of food in Chinese culture.
"The traditional Chinese saying that Food is the peoples Heaven shows the importance of food in peoples daily lives In todays world, in which people have become more and more closely tied to the computer, you only have to type in the words food or eat in a Chinese search engine, you will find that the words that crop up the most in the list of results are safety and poisoning. This is an ironic state of affairs in a country that has prided itself on its fine cuisine," said Zhou.
"Ordinary people don't know about it. If the people knew about it there would be a revolution. The wrath of the people would be unstoppable."
For thousands of years the power of China's rulers hinged on their ability to feed the people. "Revolutions aren't caused by political differences, they're caused by a lack of bread."
Zhou can only hope that his findings will spread around China by word of mouth. His book has been banned there.