Since early 2011, social media rumors have asserted plastic rice was being manufactured in China, exported, and consumed by people in other countries unaware the rice they were eating was in fact not a food at all.
Various reports in Singapore media have said that Chinese companies are mass producing fake rice made, in part, out of plastic, according to one online publication Very Vietnam … “A Chinese Restaurant Association official said that eating three bowls of this fake rice would be like eating one plastic bag. Due to the seriousness of the matter, he added that there would be an investigation of factories alleged to be producing the rice,” Very Vietnam noted.
The “rice” is made by mixing potatoes, sweet potatoes and plastic. The potatoes are first formed into the shape of rice grains. Industrial synthetic resins are then added to the mix. The rice reportedly stays hard even after being cooked … About 300,000 people were injured and at least six infants died in 2008 when Chinese milk and infant formula was found to be adulterated with melamine, which was thought to help the milk pass nutrition tests.
Later that year, melamine was also discovered in Chinese eggs.
In what is the most diabolical thing I have read today, a report from Very Vietnam alleges that some Chinese food producers are creating synthetic rice out of potatoes, sweet potatoes, and plastic. The “rice” is made by mixing the potato material together, shaping it into grains, and then adding an “industrial resin” as a binding agent. Very Vietnam says that these resins can be very harmful if eaten … “A Chinese Restaurant Association official said that eating three bowls of this fake rice would be like eating one plastic bag.”
The obvious motivation behind this scheme would be money, since the synthetic “rice” is cheaper to produce. This is just another, albeit somewhat more disquieting, in the long line of tainted or defective products apparently coming out of China. These would include the poisonous drywall, and tainted milk. If true, this [is] a cruel, calculated maneuver[.]
Between 2011 and 2016 the story intermittently made the social media rounds, losing even the very basic details from unfounded reports that the faux food was purportedly fabricated from other edible starches (such as sweet potato or potato) and distilling it simply to an issue of “plastic rice.” In October 2016, the claim recirculated on Facebook and inspired blog posts anew, such as verbatim details of the years-old claim reproduced on alternative health blogs:
Research has shown that certain rice factories in China have been producing a “fake rice substitute” in place of the popular and more expensive Wuchang rice, for greater profit. According to the Korean Times, this food fraud is being created using a mixture of potatoes, sweet potatoes, and synthetic resin (plastic). These ingredients are mixed together and formed into “grains” which very closely resemble the appearance of actual grains of rice. The rice substitute is then sprayed with a fragrance to mimic the smell of Wuchang rice, making it difficult to decipher between the two versions.
As you would expect, consuming this “plastic rice” is extremely harmful and toxic to one’s health, and is causing quite an uproar. One Chinese official warned that eating three bowls of this man-made rice would be equivalent to ingesting one plastic bag.
Perennial plastic rice rumors bear all the hallmarks of a standard “food from China” panic, including identical claims rehashed year in and out without substantiation. The “Chinese Restaurant Official” is always warning that consuming the purported product is akin to eating a plastic bag and asserting that the motive behind the food fakery is cynically financial (without offering any proof that it’s cheaper to go to the trouble of making plastic rice than growing real rice). Another marker of panic over fabricated food from China is the existence of multiple videos purportedly depicting the shady manufacturing of fake rice in factories:
The repurposed video angle was at the forefront of another Chinese export panic involving labor intensive wax cabbage, proffered via a video clip swiped from an Asian television show about making “display food” which is not intended for consumption. And like the plastic rice rumor, the wax cabbage claim circulated bearing the implausible assumption that people would carry on unaware the salad they were eating tasted like a candle, or their rice had a styrofoam-y mouthfeel.
The earliest and primary versions of the plastic claim hinged on “reports,” alleged investigations, information that was scary “if true,” rice fabrication that “it [was] thought” occurred, and the sort of content which tends to make a “better safe than sorry” impression on readers without the need for any rigorous followup. Naturally, the plastic rice claims perpetually played well on social media pages devoted to food sanctimony with or without substantiation. When the claims were new in early 2011, they essentially represented a rumor which had filtered into non-English news sources from an unsubstantiated single report, with no clear evidence presented to suggest plastic rice was real or a known risk. An extant Wikipedia page (littered with clear signs of editorial neglect) lists plastic rice as an “imitation food,” but its citations are largely newer iterations of the old unproven rumor.
By May 2015, the plastic rice rumor had hit a fever pitch in Indonesia. One English-language source reported on the initial panic — and that testing had revealed the claim was false:
On May 16, the Harian Terbit newspaper published an article warning that China was producing fake rice. The report urged Indonesians to be vigilant, although it admitted there was no certainty that plastic rice was being circulated in Indonesia.
On the same day, MNC Media’s Global TV broadcast the YouTube video and claimed the factory was making fake rice — despite not having a shred of evidence to prove its allegation. Later, Metro TV aired the same video, claiming it showed a counterfeit rice factory … All of this ‘news’ of fake rice filtered through to the community. On May 18, a rice porridge vendor from the West Java city of Bekasi, Dewi Septiani (29), declared she had unwittingly purchased and consumed some plastic rice.
She had bought six litres of rice on May 13 from a vendor at Tanah Merah traditional market for Rp.8,000 per litre. She claimed the rice did not turn into proper porridge but instead became congealed, making her, her younger sister and nephew sick after they ate it. Having seen the YouTube clips and the news reports, she assumed they must have consumed synthetic rice.
Police questioned the vendor and one of his suppliers and closed his shop. Dewi’s porridge shop was also closed pending investigations. On May 20, samples of the rice — including some cooked by Dewi — were taken by police for tests, conducted separately by state-owned certification company Sucofindo, the National Police, the National Agency of Drug and Food Control (BPOM), the Trade Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry … Sucofindo was quick to announce the results of its tests, on May 21 claiming the rice contained traces of polyvinylchloride (PVC), a synthetic compound which is usually used to make pipes. Specifically, it had found traces of three types of plasticizers used in the manufacture of PVC: benzylbutylphthalate (BBP), 2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) and diisononyl phthalate (DINP). It did not state the percentages of the synthetic materials it had found.
Meanwhile, lazy reporters found an old online news article from South Korea from 2011, claiming that rice made out of plastic was being “massively” sold in China. The report, citing unnamed media sources from Singapore, said “plastic rice is made by forming potatoes and sweet potatoes into rice-like shape, then adding industrial synthetic resins.” It warned that “eating three bowls of plastic rice is the same as eating one vinyl bag” … These ‘facts’ quickly made their way into Indonesian and Malaysian media reports. Even before Sucofindo had released its results, the Jakarta division of hip regional city news network Coconuts.co on May 20 proclaimed: “Plastic rice is real, as shown in this video of its production in a Chinese factory.” Oh dear. An accompanying article on http://jakarta.coconuts.co claimed “this video at least confirms that plastic rice is a real thing”. Utter garbage.
On May 26, National Police chief General Badrodin Haiti, after a meeting with the president and other top officials, announced that all of the other tests were negative, so there never had been any plastic rice. He advised the public to stop panicking over the issue … So why had Sucofindo come up with different results? Badrodin said Sucofindo may have been using different analysis methods or contaminated equipment.
BPOM head Roy Sparingga confirmed that his agency had found no synthetic polymers or heavy metals in the rice. He said the World Health Organization’s International Network of Food Safety Authorities had informed BPOM there were no recent cases of synthetic rice in other countries.
Trade Minister Rachmat Gobel said his counterparts in China and Malaysia had assured him there was no fake rice in distribution in their countries.
In November 2015, the Jakarta Post reiterated that notions of markets rife with synthetic rice were a public panic or “hoax,” not a legitimate health concern. The same alleged incident with the same porridge vendor was found to have escalated fear of plastic rice, leading to an entrenched belief the staple food was making Indonesians sick:
The Jakarta Police have said they have halted an investigation into rice that had been claimed to contain dangerous plastics, as laboratory results had shown the rice samples contained no such materials.
Jakarta Police special crime director Sr. Comr. Mujiyono said that based on an examination conducted by the National Police central forensics laboratory (Puslabfor), the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM), and the Agriculture Ministry’s research and development unit (Balitbang), the police had concluded that the allegations were erroneous … In May, state-owned survey company Sucofindo confirmed that rice samples taken from the Bekasi store contained polyvinyl chloride (PVC) usually found in plastic pipes, as well as a plasticizer chemical substance usually found in hydraulic tools and electric capacitors. It announced that the substances could cause kidney, liver, lung problems and cancer if consumed.
Nonetheless, the government countered the statement some days later, announcing that a round of official laboratory tests by the BPOM, the Trade Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry had found no plastic substances in the rice samples, which were suspected to have been imported from China.
At [a November 2016] press conference, Puslabfor chemistry and biology division representative Sr. Comr Sabran Subandi said that the report also unsettled many other Bekasi residents and the Bekasi police had received many reports regarding artificial rice … According to him, people had reported their suspicions when they felt sick after consuming the rice … He said that the police immediately took action on the reports by testing samples of rice in the areas where complaints were made. They did not find any plastic substances in the samples.
‘As we all know, many people get sick every day. After Dewi’s report, cases of sick people seemed to be automatically connected to plastic rice,’ Sabran said. ‘However, they could have been sick for many other reasons.’
As of October 2016, the plastic rice panic was still going strong both in and outside the United States. A 17 October 2016 article in The Hindu lamented the routine belief such blatant adulteration was common in spite of food safety regulation processes:
Had it not been for the social media, the ‘Chinese egg’ would not have attained its current notoriety. Similar were the cases of fumes emanating from fish or of plastic rice entering the market or dye being injected into watermelons.
Unfortunately, all such reports reached the electronic media and certain sections of the print media, almost confirming people’s fears over instances they saw first on social media.
However, why the same social media or the mainstream media did not give much space to reports exposing the hoax remains unclear. The same media which spread the hoax earlier should take the responsibility of clearing the air, believe people with scientific authority and temperament.
“Ordinary people are misguided by such videos and news,” says Thomas Biju Mathew, professor and head of the pesticide laboratory of the Kerala Agricultural University. He was involved in a series of tests regarding the ‘Chinese eggs’ and other issues. “The social media, instead of complementing our lives, is now almost a disease,” he adds.
Dr. Mathew takes a serious view of the fake news spreading through the media and says the government should come up with some cyber law to tackle the problem because it is a crime to create fear and confusion. There are methods to zero in on persons spreading unverified news regarding prominent persons. The methods should be utilised to find the source of fake news as well, he adds.
The government has facilities to check any aspect of food adulteration and contamination, and Food Safety offices and inspectors are available in all districts. People should alert Food Safety officials if any such issue occurs in their locality or if they come across a message or news warning of such dangers, says K.V. Shibu, Assistant Commissioner, Food Safety, Ernakulam.
Much like soy sauce purportedly made from human hair, the above-mentioned wax lettuce, or warnings about crabs, pork, tilapia, chicken, and garlic exported from China, the plastic rice rumor served as a socially acceptable manner in which people could express reservations about exotic or culturally unpalatable ingredients in Chinese exports (rather than a legitimate health or safety concern). Such legends and rumors antedate their social media format, although before Facebook they tended to manifest in the form of cat and dog meat-stocked freezers or bodily fluids lurking in Chinese takeout, all of which carried the underlying message that Chinese-made goods were not to be trusted.
And despite the new life breathed into it by Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms, the base rumor was one of the oldest in circulation. Versions were traced back as far as the 1850s, with one example from 1948 on a snopes.com page explaining why such rumors have tremendous resilience in Western countries:
Ancient slur or not, wherever this rumor goes it affects how the locals feel about the Chinese in their midst … As an example (this rumor has turned up in so many cities, it would be impossible to list them all), in 1995 the closing of two Chinese restaurants in Columbus, Ohio, awakened the sleeping rumor yet again. Calls were fielded, both by the local paper and the board of health, about whispers that these closings were the result of dead cats’ being discovered in each eatery’s meat locker. Never mind that just the previous day the local paper had run a story about the closure (for business reasons) of all 51 restaurants in this particular chain — the cat meat rumor would not be denied.
[The adulterated Chinese food] legend is a classic example of xenophobia (fear and hatred of foreigners or that which is foreign). Asian culture is markedly different from Western culture, with language but the first barrier to be hurdled. Customs, religious observances, traditions — all are wildly different from their North American counterparts. As with all xenophobic reactions, that which isn’t the same is vilified. The Asian culinary practice of making a tiny bit of meat stretch to feed a family by cutting it up fine and making it part of a larger dish of vegetables or noodles is transformed by fear into a vehicle for “them” to slip something objectionable into our unwitting stomachs. Likewise, that the Chinese don’t as a rule keep cats and dogs as pets becomes seen as a willingness to plop someone else’s animal companion into the stew pot. Anything for a buck, says this legend, and if in the process one puts over on the white devils, so much the better.
Since the appearance of plastic rice rumors in 2011, we have been unable to locate any substantiated reports that anyone successfully passed off plastic rice off as the real thing regularly (or ever) in any of the countries in which the rumor took root. As a case study from Indonesia illustrated thoroughly, the rumor was self-promoting: one woman exposed to the plastic rice rumor became ill and presumed the fake food she’d heard about was to blame. Faulty initial testing cemented the belief, and soon many people were attributing all illnesses to the specter of plastic rice. A few follow-up items reported that thorough testing had revealed the rice in question was not plastic or was simply adulterated, yet the claim went on to make the alternative health rounds in October 2016 unencumbered by the debunkings.
All versions stemmed from one shaky item published in January 2011 and plastic rice lived in realm of legend until 21 December 2016, when the BBC published an article reporting that the notorious faux foodstuff had been “seized in Nigeria.” Although the headline said plastic rice had affirmatively been discovered, the article suggested otherwise:
Nigeria has confiscated 2.5 tonnes of “plastic rice” smuggled into the country by unscrupulous businessmen, the customs service says … Lagos customs chief Haruna Mamudu said the fake rice was intended to be sold in markets during the festive season.
The BBC’s Peter Okwoche says it is the only foodstuff that crosses cultural and ethnic lines across the country.
Whoever made this fake rice did an exceptionally good job – on first impression it would have fooled me. When I ran the grains through my fingers nothing felt out of the ordinary … But when I smelt a handful of the “rice” there was a faint chemical odour. Customs officials say when they cooked up the rice it was too sticky – and it was then abundantly clear this was no ordinary batch.
They’ve sent a sample to the laboratories to determine exactly what the “rice” is made of.
They are also warning the public not to consume the mystery foodstuff as it could be dangerous.
Fake food scandals are thankfully rare in Nigeria when you compare it to countries such as China.
As of the 21 December 2016 report, the “plastic” rice seized in Nigeria was en route to be tested and its composition unconfirmed. The customs chief’s statement about unsavory businessmen preying on holiday shoppers suggested he was previously aware of the rumor, as did the BBC’s reference to myriad “fake food scandals” in China (which have been almost entirely fictitious, as noted above). It was possible a batch of rice tainted by chemicals or otherwise not fit for consumption was presumed to be the legendary plastic rice by folks exposed to the years-old rumor, or that the rice was in some manner counterfeit. However, the nature of the grains remained in question, and the scenario seemed likely to be an instance of ostension (or pseudo-ostension).
On 24 December 2016, Nigeria’s Ministry of Health announced that tests on the “plastic rice” had revealed the rice was in fact not plastic:
In [a] statement, Yetunde Oni, acting director-general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), who briefed minister, was quoted to have said that preliminary findings by the agency failed to validate the claim by the NCS.
“Following the reports on the seizure of ‘alleged plastic rice’, NAFDAC team of inspectors led by the Director Ports Inspection Directorate(PID) and Director laboratory services visited the Area Comptroller’s Office, Ikeja, Lagos and drew samples from the seized consignment for laboratory analysis,” Oni said.
“The products were in 25kg pack size with no NAFDAC number, batch details and manufacturing details of address of manufacture and date markings.
“The following preliminary tests and results were found to be in conformity with the specification for rice: Floating — negative, cooking — normal, odour — normal, colour- off-white rice grains , moisture -13.0 , pre-ashing — normal.”
The plastic rice story (and its fellow counterfeit Chinese food export legends) resemble an internationally viral 2007 CCTV segment about pork buns purportedly made with scrap cardboard, for which an independent journalist was eventually detained and accused of faking the oft-referenced story.