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Chinese spooked by food scandals take action - by growing it themselves

Le Li / NBC News

Jiang Yuhong, with her husband and son, at the Carrot Organic Farm in Shunyi, China.

BEIJING – Shopping for groceries is a painful process for Tan Yinghong, a mother in her mid-30s. Just to buy meat, vegetables and milk for her 7-year-old son she has to pick her way through a minefield of possible perils – fake lamb, diseased pork, toxic ginger, tainted milk and unsafe bottled water.  

So after years of scandals and the government's inability to clean up the food supply chain, this spring the former high school teacher took matters into her own hands and signed a lease on about a quarter of an acre of farmland on the outskirts of Beijing with six other families.

It ends up urban gardening isn't just for hipsters in Brooklyn and San Francisco.

Tan and her friends plan to start by raising their own chickens and vegetables, and eventually grow all of their own food. The tender shoots of their first vegetable crop of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions have just broken through the soil.  

“I was so excited to see seeds growing from the earth,” Tan said.

Tan is part of a growing group who are tackling the food safety issues in China by raising it themselves.

Not much faith in ‘organic’ label
In 2006, when Tan moved to Beijing from a town near the southwestern city of Chongqing with her husband, she expected an adjustment to fast-paced city life.  She did not foresee spending countless hours looking for safe food for her son.

A 2008 scandal involving melamine-tainted milk and infant formula was the first wakeup call. As a result of the chemical melamine being added to the milk and baby formula, an estimated 300,000 were sickened and six infants died. Two people from one milk company were executed in the aftermath, but no new regulations were put in place.

After that, Tan switched to imported and organic food. But a rash of scams, including fake Evian destroyed her trust in products that were supposedly imported.

And Tan was skeptical that the vegetables marked with green "organic" stickers were really any safer.

She’s not alone. A recent survey by Insight China Magazine and Tsinghua University indicates almost 70 percent of China’s consumers feel insecure about food safety.

The government regulates organic labels, but farmers must pay a fee to apply for the certificates, and many Chinese consumers don’t believe the market is regulated strictly enough to ensure the veracity of producers' claims.

China’s official Xinhua news agency reported Thursday that the State Council, China's cabinet, recently ordered local government departments to step up checks on meat and processed meat products, and carry out detailed inspections of rural factories, workshops and warehouses as well as private slaughterhouses.

Beijing has repeatedly called for greater inspections of food processing facilities, but they haven’t had much success building consumer trust in the past. The latest clampdown encourages local governments to offer rewards to individuals who inform on illegal activities

Le Li / NBC News

The greenhouses at Carrot Organic Farm in Shunyi, China.

Carrot Organic Farm
Like Tan, Jiang Yuhong, 37, became aware of the food safety when she was pregnant in 2010. She decided to stick to organic food sold at Walmart, which many consumers trust more because it’s a foreign company. While Jiang barely considered the cost, she just thought the organic vegetables didn't taste right.

Eventually she moved from the center of Beijing to the suburbs of Shunyi and built a house beside a plot of land where she could grow her own vegetables. 

After two years of farming, Jiang realized many of her friends actually enjoyed working in her fields during weekend gatherings. She saw a business opportunity and went big.

So she founded Carrot Organic Farm on 124 acres in January 2012. 

The Carrot Organic Farm has 207 greenhouses; each is about 8,000 square feet and is divided into 23 units of about 350 square feet. Customers can rent as much space as they like, but the minimum is one unit. And it’s pricey:  the minimum membership fee is about $600, roughly a month’s salary of a recent graduate in Beijing.

For those too busy or not inclined to spend spare time tending crops, the farm provides workers and door-to-door delivery. Jiang decided not to pay for the organic certification, and instead lets customers watch their food grow themselves. She installed surveillance cameras to allow clients to monitor their vegetables at any time. 

Her bet paid off. Within a year of opening, she's recouped her initial investment and her scheme has 3,000 members. Given the cost, most of her clients are members of the elite, as well as international tech companies like Oracle and Panasonic.

Jiang now divides her time between the company, her own farm and her son. She says she gets just five or six hours of sleep a night and works straight through the weekends, but has no complaints.

On her phone Jiang scrolls through pictures of her son, running in her ample backyard.    

“Look at the way he is kicking,” Jiang said. “He is organic.” 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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