BEIJING (AFP) – 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.
State media has said nearly 50 hectares (120 acres) of watermelon crops in the eastern city of Danyang have been ruined by the phenomenon this month after some growers doused them with the growth accelerator forchlorfenuron.
"On May 7, I came out and counted 80 (exploded watermelons), but by the afternoon it was 100," farmer Liu Mingsuo told state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) in a report that aired Tuesday.
He said he had sprayed them with the chemical just a day before.
"Two days later I didn't bother to count anymore," added Liu, who admitted using forchlorfenuron and saw three hectares of watermelons -- more than two-thirds of his crop -- laid to waste.
The use of forchlorfenuron is legal in China. In the United States, the chemical is registered for use on grapes and kiwi fruit.
However, CCTV and other media reports also 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.
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.
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.