When dining at a Chinese restaurant, dishes and utensils are often provided in the form of individualized, shrink wrapped plastic packages to ensure the utensils have been cleaned, sterilized, and then wrapped to keep them that way.
But as seasoned expats can attest, the plastic doesn’t always ensure cleanliness. Despite being stamped with a certification number, date of issue, and place of production, diners often crack open their individualized place-settings only to discover eating utensils that are still dirty.
While most Chinese and expats have a story, anecdotal evidence isn’t necessarily indicative of a systemic issue. Unless of course it is. Thankfully, the Wenzhou Evening Report decided to find out. Over the course of a month, two undercover reporters looked at a lot of utensils in a lot of plastic wrap. The results of their in-depth investigation are nothing short of horrifying.
The report makes serious allegations of professional impropriety with specific violations that are the very antithesis of “clean and sterile”. Following an investigation at one of the utensil cleaning plants, the reporters made some disturbing discoveries:
- employees don’t use gloves or uniforms;
- employees don’t wash their hands;
- utensils that fall on floor are still kept in the production line;
- sterilized utensils are kept in dirty places, like the ground;
- utensils that remain dirty after passing through the production line are improperly cleaned, as with a dirty rag;
- utensils covered with human blood are considered fit for consumers;
- the process of sterilization only takes two to three seconds;
- a disinfectant solution is reused for three days before changing
These are all serious allegations against an industry for which cleanliness is their strict selling point.
And yet, as detailed in the report, and as seen in other similar exposés of the food industry, workers are more than willing to admit that they willfully endanger consumers with unsafe health practices.
The month-long investigation met with heavy resistance from the hygienic eating utensil industry, which was reluctant to reveal any information about their practices despite having a near monopoly in Wenzhou. Of 50 restaurants interviewed for the report, 80% said they used the shrink-wrapped eating utensils despite not knowing anything about how the utensils were prepared, or where they come from.
The Longwan Aixin Disinfectant Utensil Center refused the reporter’s request to visit their facilities, as did fellow Wenzhou utensil provider Guoxijie Utensil Cleansing. When the reporter went to the Guoxijie facilities unannounced on July 22, he was discovered within two minutes and ejected from the premises.
The reporter was finally able to make his way into the secretive industry by applying for a job at the Kangjie facility, a feat accomplished with the help of an intern that was following along. After a two minute interview in which there was no need to produce a health certificate, the reporter was able to get behind the scenes.
As it turns out, the process of turning dirty eating utensils into a clean and sterilized form suitable for consumers is a five-step process that takes 20 minutes to complete: preliminary wash, sorting, liquid disinfecting, main wash, heat sterilizing, and packaging. Of the first five steps, only six employees are assigned compared with nine workers assigned to packaging the utensils.
The report describes the five separate areas:
- The preliminary wash is the first step in the process, and is the dirtiest place in the facility. It is staffed by one worker.
- The sorting area has three areas where utensils get organized by individual types.
- The liquid disinfecting area is a sink about two meters long filled with disinfectant into which the utensils are soaked.
- The main wash employs a high-pressure water gun to clean the utensils more thoroughly than step one.
- The heat sterilizing machine is two meters long inside of which the utensils are subjected to high temperatures to dry and kill any bacteria.
- The packaging area is a two meter-long conveyor belt upon which the clean and sterilized eating utensils are organized by hand into individualized packages before being shrink-wrapped by a machine.
The Kangjie facility may appear to have a proper system for thorough cleaning and sterilization, but as the undercover reporter found in the three days of working there, the day to day implementation of the system is where everything goes wrong.
On his first day, the reporter noticed that no one was wearing any protective clothing. He asked a fellow worker:
Reporter: How is it that we don’t wear any gloves or work clothes? Aren’t they mandated by the factory?
Worker: Sure there are! But with the weather being so hot, what’s the point of wearing them? No need to wear them.
Reporter: Have you ever worn them?
Worker: If someone comes for an inspection, then we wear them.
Then, the reporter asked how “clean” utensils are to be handled:
Reporter: After disinfecting, the chopsticks are sill wet; do we still wrap up the ones that haven’t been disinfected and cleaned?
Worker: Yes! The chopsticks are the dirtiest.
Reporter: I see that you’ve still wrapped up chopsticks that have fallen on the floor. Isn’t that a bad idea?
Worker: No need to concern yourself with that. Once they’re wrapped up, they’re fine.
Not once while working at the cleaning and sterilizing facility was the reporter asked to wash his hands, so he asked a co-worker about it:
Reporter: When I come to work, the boss still hasn’t required me to wash my hands. Don’t I have to?
Worker (laughs embarrassingly, then waves hand): No problem! No need to wash your hands! I didn’t wash my hands yesterday.
Reporter: Won’t this be unclean?
The following day, the reporter noticed that despite being put through the cleaning process, pieces of food were still stuck to the eating utensils even after the heat sterilizing process. As the pieces of leftover food were large enough, the reporter was able to identify them by sight: watermelon rinds, water-logged beef, chewed up corn, chicken feet, spare rib bones, and hot peppers.
After noticing employees placing disinfected utensils on the ground, the reporter went to help out a fellow worker who found a piece of pork stuck within a pile of chopsticks.
Reporter: After getting out this piece of pork, do I need to wash my hands?
Managing worker (laughing): No need.
Reporter: Can I keep wrapping up these spoons?
Managing worker (nodding): Sure.
Despite there being a system through which the utensils are processed, any items that pass through the system that remain dirty aren’t necessarily made to undergo the process again. Instead, any utensils that have stains after the disinfectant stage are wiped with a dirty rag that looks yellowed with age and is usually left on the washer.
On his last day of working at the cleaning and disinfectant facility, the reporter asked about adhering to the system:
Reporter: Can we directly wash the utensils by scrubbing (by hand)?
Worker: Yes, if you still have time. If it’s too late, then forget it. For those (leftover) grains of rice and bits of chive onions, just wipe them away and it will be fine.
The cleaning and sterilization facility is a dangerous place for workers because of the risk of injury from broken utensils. In one instance, a female co-worker cut herself and then bandaged herself up and went back to work.
Bloodstains from the woman’s injury could be seen upon utensils that had already been cleaned and sterilized. While some of these blood stains were wiped away, others completely passed through the system and could be seen upon packaged settings set to be delivered to restaurants.
While the facility has a process to sterilize eating utensils, the reporter found that utensils were not properly sterilized. Following his last shift, the reporter talked to an old worker. The man revealed that since they have a small workforce compared to the amount of utensils for which they are responsible, the utensils are only put into the sterilizer for two to three seconds at a time, and aren’t sterilized dry.
Lastly, the reporter found that while water in the first area is changed daily from being so dirty, the liquid disinfectant is used continuously for three days, two if the load is especially heavy.
With the number of food safety scandals and lax quality standards in China, the horrors of this report may be a foregone conclusion for some. Then again, a better educated public will hopefully translate to more sanitary eating conditions, even if the restaurants have to scrub one utensil at a time.
Photos: Guangzhou Daily, 99114