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After a visit to China in 2010, a U.N. human rights envoy expressed concern about the prosecution and harassment of China’s food safety advocates, citing the case of Zhao Lianhai, a Beijing writer who was sentenced to 2-1/2 years in jail “for inciting social disorder” after he organized parents of children sickened by tainted milk formula in 2008.

Olivier De Schutter, the Human Rights Council’s independent expert on the right to food, said such actions had a “chilling effect” on food safety activism in China and called on the government to allow free expression to play a role in defending the public’s right to safe food.

“Doing nongovernment work, or any public welfare work in China is risky,” said Wu, the ‘Throw it Out the Window’ founder.

Though he’s on the radar of Shanghai officials, they don’t so far seem to see his work as threatening.

Last month, the Shanghai Food Safety Office asked to meet Wu, a request that made him think the site was about to be shut down.

Nine sharply dressed officials showed up, including the office director, and talked with Wu for 2.5 hours in a Fudan University conference room. He showed them a powerpoint presentation about the Web site and took questions. Wu was surprised and relieved by the feedback he got.

“They were actually approving of my work and said I was helping them do their job,” Wu said with a laugh.

A similar concept on a different platform is the “China Survival Guide,” an iPhone application that became the top free download in the Chinese Apple Inc. iTunes store within three days of its launch last month. It has a searchable database of food problems and updates daily.

Yang Feiyan, spokesperson for Kingsoft Internet Security Software, said one of the company’s product managers came up with the idea for the app as a gift to his young daughter and father after hearing about industrial gelatin in kid’s snacks and cabbage sprayed with formaldehyde.

“He had the very clear impression that friends and family around him had gone from feeling really depressed and angry about the food safety situation to feeling terrified and anxious,” Yang said.

She said the executive who came up with the idea wasn’t available for an interview and declined to identify him by name.

Kingsoft hopes the app can “wake up people’s consciousness to the need to fight for food safety,” Yang said, adding that the company is now working on an Android version.

While shining an unflattering spotlight on China’s food problems, both the Kingsoft app and Wu’s site rely on government sanctioned reports from state-run media. A more daring approach would be to do fully independent testing or reporting on food, but attempts to do that have been shut down.

Wu, the grad student, says the next level of food activism in China will be teaching consumers to vote with their pocketbooks, to avoid shoddy products and pressure manufacturers to meet higher standards.

Throw It Out The Window (Chinese only)

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