If you’ve ever had Asian take-out, you’ve probably been given the option of chopsticks. But chances are those chopsticks are made in China with Chinese standards of production, and not the sort of thing you want anywhere near your food or your mouth.
Take a look at a test done in 2013 by Chinese social media star Huang Bo. Huang took a pair of nicely-packaged disposable chopsticks, put them in hot water, and this happened:
The yellow color and strong odor (based on Huang’s report) were later linked to excessive sulfur mixed into the wood.
“Do you dare to drink the water?” Huang wrote. “Avoiding disposable chopsticks is not just environmentally-friendly, it’s also safe!”
The post, published on the popular Sina Weibo social media platform, went viral and was shared over 100,000 times in one day. The post, saved above in a screencap, has since been censored from the Chinese Internet.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reasons for staying clear of China’s chopsticks.
1. They Are Made in Labor Camps
Blending the worst of Party control with market forces, slave labor in the camps is utilized by companies looking for ever-lower production costs. With millions of prisoners producing all kinds of consumer products in China’s Gulag Archipelago, it’s no surprise that a good amount of chopsticks are made there too.
Bu Dongwei, who once worked for the San-Francisco based Asia Foundation Beijing branch, was sentenced for his beliefs in Falun Gong, a spiritual practice repressed by the Communist Party. Sentenced to two years in a labor camp, Bu was forced to work for over ten hours a day.
After escaping to the United States in 2008, Bu told Radio Free Asia of the brutal conditions in the camp. Prisoners made chopsticks for export in small, crowded rooms. There was no sanitation process—for example, water was in short supply and generally used for drinking only.
Bu Dongwei says that chopsticks made and packaged in the labor camps are common in American restaurants.
“Last week I was in Washington D.C., and when I had meals at downstairs of Capitol Hill, they use the same kind,” he said.
2. They Are Made in Unsanitary Conditions
If having your chopsticks manufactured by slave labor isn’t bad enough, the conditions are also extremely unclean. Though they are put in packages that say “Sterilized in High Temperature,” the truth is anything but that.
Falun Gong practitioner Yu Ming, former head of a clothing manufacturer in Liaoyang City of Liaoning Province, wrote in an article published on Minghui.org that because the camp he was detained at was so crowded, chopsticks are thrown all over the floor, which itself was covered with fecal matter and other garbage.
Minghui.org is a site that documents the Communist Party’s persecution of Falun Gong,
“Sometimes they were dropped into the open toilet, but nobody cared,” Yu said. “They would just pick the chopsticks up and put them in the paper wrappers, since the total number of chopsticks could not be short, by even one.”
Chopsticks production is a simple way for camp guards to make extra money. In 2004, one box of chopsticks was worth less than a dollar, and each detainee could complete about three boxes in a day. With about 160 people in one unit, the supervising guards could make a handsome profit.
Aside from political prisoners, many of the workers in the camp are drug addicts, prostitutes, and other people who are infected with skin diseases or sexually transmitted diseases.
“They are given no formal medical examination are conducted on them,” Yu Ming wrote. “No one cares if you are infected with hepatitis or STDs; if you are still breathing you have to work for the police.”
3. They’re Chemically Whitened
Years ago, enlarged photos showing “monkeys” in the fibers of broken disposable chopsticks were shared widely on Chinese social media. This is the result of the chemical solution used by some some factories to whiten the chopsticks.
The sulfur compound used in the liquid whitening process gets stuck in the pores of the wood, leading to different shades that resemble monkey faces (other netizens said they looked like skulls).
When this substance comes into contact with heat, such as that from foods, the leftover particles in the chopsticks can cause respiratory disorders, Chinese regulation officers told the Nanchang Evening News. The chemicals also contribute to the formation of gall bladder stones.
4. Even China’s State Media Say There’s a Problem
The low standards of chopstick production have been acknowledged by China Central Television (CCTV), the Communist Party mouthpiece.
One CCTV report, in addition to confirming the use of harmful chemicals in the bleaching process, also revealed factories where workers were found to be turning over chopsticks with their feet. Some of the utensils were so dirty that they had accumulated darkened mold stains. Yet rather than being discarded, they were sent to be bleached all the same.
CCTV reporters also said they discovered multiple factories where the disinfection process was absent entirely.
5. Think of the Trees!
China and Japan are the world’s biggest producers and consumers of disposable chopsticks, with an annual rate of 80 billion for China alone. This requires 200 million trees a year, according to Bo Guangxin, who heads the China Jilin Forest Industry Group. One 20-year-old tree can be used to make around 4,000 pairs of chopsticks.
Greenpeace East Asia, published a report condemning the disposable chopsticks production wasting the country’s already limited timber stocks.
The People’s Daily has also criticized the common practice of clear-cutting, which offers no chance for forest regeneration. The state mouthpiece belittled the practice as an economic development mode typical to developing countries that ends in environmental devastation.