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Ordering food in Beijing makes me nervous

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  • CNN's John Vause says ordering food in China has been replaced with dread
  • Vause: It took pet food scare in U.S. to get Beijing to answer tough questions
  • China says execution of former FDA chief is a message to others
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By John Vause
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here, John Vause describes the effect tainted food has had on a foreigner.

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CNN's John Vause says he's lost 10 pounds in recent weeks as reports of tainted food have come out in China.

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Eating out in China used to be one of the great experiences of living here. I often thought going out with friends and colleagues for dinner was a bit like the game of "Hungry Hungry Hippos" -- vast quantities of amazing food that made dining a pleasure. Best of all, it was affordable and palatable.

But these days, the joy of anticipation of what the next dish will bring has been replaced with, well, the dread of what the next dish may contain.

When ordering at restaurants, I wonder: Is that drug-tainted fish and shrimp? Did that pork come from a pig that was force-fed wastewater? Any melamine added to those noodles?

Those are among some of the recent food scares here. Even drinking a glass of water instills fear: A recent government report found half the bottled watered in this city was counterfeit.

I was never a particularly brave soul when it came to eating at exotic little restaurants here, but now I am terrified. When traveling across China, that fear goes off the charts. Packing for trips now includes muesli bars made in the United States and imported almonds. Video Watch food elitism in Hong Kong »

And then there is the grocery shopping. Everyone else around the world it seems is buying cheap food and other products made in China. Not the Vause house. My wife searches across this city for breakfast cereal made in the United States. We have meat and fish flown in from Australia, milk from New Zealand, and on it goes.

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Some things are unavoidable, but we do our best. Maybe it's irrational on my part. Certainly many friends who have lived here longer than I have insist there's nothing to fear. They argue in a country this size there will always be isolated cases like the ones that have surfaced lately.

But I have another perspective. In a Communist country where corruption is rampant and the press appears only free to go after the little guy, I believe the deep systemic problems go unreported -- that is until dogs and cats in the United States start dying from pet food made with Chinese-tainted ingredients and the world starts asking China some very difficult questions.

The Communist leadership has acknowledged the corruption problem in China and they know they can make all the pronouncements about food quality they want from Beijing. But that means almost zilch as long as the local businessmen are paying off local officials who are paying off the local police who are meant to enforce whatever new standards and regulations are announced. And that's the rub. There's a fortune to be made cutting corners and ignoring the rules, and almost no risk if you get caught. Watch the cures that kill Video

There are notable exceptions.

For instance, the former head of China's Food and Drug Administration was executed for taking bribes and approving deadly medicine. The People's Daily, the mouthpiece for the Communist Party, wrote the day after Zhen Xiaoyu's death sentence was carried out that it was a warning to all officials.

"Corrupt elements will be thoroughly investigated no matter who they are, how high their post, or how deep they hide, and there can be no appeasement or softness," it said.

I have my doubts.

I also met with the general manager of one of the companies at the center of the melamine-tainted rice gluten exports earlier this year. He was in prison and looked dazed and confused. I got the distinct impression that he had no idea why he was in jail for something widely believed being done by so many others. It's just that his melamine loaded rice gluten killed dogs and cats in the United States.

The bottom line is: If you're worried about Chinese exports, rest assured the local stuff is without doubt many, many times worse.

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It's scary to live here not knowing if the food and drinks are safe.

But on the upside, in the last month, since the food scare story really took off, I've dropped 10 pounds. I guess there is an upside to everything. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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