Why Fears Over a Few Bad Strawberries in China Collapsed the Entire Market

August 5, 2015 Updated: August 5, 2015    

There’s definitely pesticide residue on strawberries sold in China, but whether it’s hazardous to health or not is debatable, according to reports in China state-run media. Regardless, wary Chinese citizens, fearful of yet another food scandal, have steered clear of the fruit, which caused a collapse in the strawberry market.

In a six-minute report aired at the end of April, state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) revealed that traces of toxic pesticides—chlorothalonil and acetochlor—were found in strawberries purchased from eight locations in Beijing, covering supermarkets, wholesalers, and roadside vans.

A screen grab from a CCTV investigative report on pesticide laced strawberries in Beijing on April 26, 2015. (Screen shot/cntv.cn)
A screen grab from a CCTV investigative report on pesticide laced strawberries in Beijing on April 26, 2015. (Screen shot via cntv.cn)

Tests done at the Beijing University of Agriculture showed that levels of acetochlor in some of the samples were three times higher than the minimum tolerable level set by the European Union. China itself doesn’t restrict use of the chemical.

CCTV said it decided to investigate strawberries after reading complaints by Chinese netizens.

While the television report only featured strawberries in Beijing, Chinese started avoiding the fruit countrywide.

A strawberry farmer in the northeastern province of Liaoning told state-run China National Radio (CNR) that they couldn’t sell the fruit at any price after the television report. A seller in the eastern city of Qingdao said sales were cut in half after the CCTV report. A wholesale market in Changhui County, Anhui Province reported that strawberries weren’t selling, and estimated that the county was losing at least 500 million yuan ($80.5 million) in strawberry sales.

Provincial authorities in Liaoning, the country’s top strawberry producer, did their own inspection of strawberry farms and found no trace of acetochlor in 51 random samples, reported CNR.

“We don’t use herbicide, how can it contain acetochlor? How can it cause cancer?” Mr. Chiang, a villager in Liaoning who owns 10 strawberry greenhouses, told state-run newspaper Life Times Daily. Several farmers told the newspaper that their workers could do nothing but weep in the fields as the harvests failed to sell.

While experts repeatedly raised doubts about the initial tests conducted at the Beijing university, it did not assuage the fears of consumers who insisted that strawberries in China were contaminated with pesticide residue, and even if the pesticide wasn’t found to be cancer causing, they wouldn’t be buying strawberries, reported Life Times Daily.

Professor Zhan Jiang from the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University told CNR that the collapse in the strawberry market reflected the Chinese people’s doubts about the safety of food in China. And that showing a pesticide residue problem with strawberries in Beijing, China’s capital, only exploded the issue, affecting the market across the entire nation, he said.

It’s unclear if the follow-up reports by Chinese state media refuting the initial results are true or if, more likely, they are a harried response to cover up yet another food scandal and allow the strawberries to sell.

Chinese suspicions about food safety are almost certainly fueled by the litany of scandals that have erupted in recent years including toxic milk powder, poisonous vegetables and fruits, the use of gutter oil, tainted seafood, and decadeslong expired frozen meats.