18 May 2011

Exploding watermelons spark China food safety fears

9:10 pm on 18 May 2011

A bizarre wave of exploding watermelons has again highlighted safety fears plaguing China's poorly regulated food sector.

State media reports nearly 50 hectares of watermelon crops in the eastern city of Danyang have been ruined by the phenomenon in May.

Some growers had doused the plants with a growth accelerator called forchlorfenuron, which is legal in China.

However, state television and other media reports say farmers who deny using the chemical also had problems, and sudden heavy rainfall after a dry spell in the area may also have been a contributing factor.

Reports of bursting watermelons are not uncommon, especially involving thinner-skinned varieties.

But the exploding melons in Jiangsu province are likely to be viewed by consumers as yet another sign of an agricultural sector addicted to chemicals - and the continuing failure of authorities to address the problem, AFP reports.

China promised decisive action after a huge milk scandal in 2008 that saw at least six babies die and 300,000 made ill by dairy products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, added to give the appearance of higher protein content.

However, a string of new reports has emerged in recent weeks involving tainted pork, toxic milk, dyed buns and other foods that have in many cases made people ill.

In April, Premier Wen Jiabao warned the misdeeds of farmers and other food producers revealed "a grave situation of dishonesty and moral degradation."

Fruits laced with forchlorfenuron-laced are safe to eat, the official Xinhua news agency reported, but it quoted consumers saying the episode had once again stoked food fears.

One person said suspiciously large fruits are common in Chinese markets, "such as strawberries as big as ping-pong balls and grapes as big as eggs".