Exploding melons sow new China food fears

A bizarre wave of exploding watermelons - possibly due to farmers' abuse of a growth-boosting chemical - has once again spotlighted safety fears plaguing China's poorly regulated food sector.

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 skittish consumers as yet another sign of an agricultural sector addicted to chemicals - and the continuing failure of authorities to address the problem.

CCTV and other media reports quoted experts saying a wave of sudden heavy rainfall following a dry spell in the area may also have been a contributing factor and that farmers who denied using the chemical also had suffered problems.

China promised decisive action after a huge 2008 milk scandal that saw at least six infants die and 300,000 sickened by dairy products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine.

Melamine was added to give the appearance of higher protein content.

But a string of new reports has emerged in recent weeks involving tainted pork, toxic milk, dyed buns and other dodgy foods that have in many cases sickened consumers.

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

Forchlorfenuron-laced fruits remain safe to eat, the official Xinhua news agency said, but quoted consumers saying the episode had once again stoked food fears.

"I am worried that some of the good-looking fruits still have chemical residue and are not safe to eat," said Zhou Haiying, a resident of Nanjing city, near Danyang.

Another person was quoted saying suspiciously large fruits are common in Chinese markets, "such as strawberries as big as ping-pong balls and grapes as big as eggs".

With food safety regularly ranked as a top public concern, China passed a 2009 Food Safety Law amid much fanfare.

But authorities have once again pledged a new crackdown on the use of chemical additives after recent scandals including bean sprouts laced with cancer-causing nitrates, steamed buns with banned preservatives, and rice laced with heavy metals.

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