BEIJING - While China grapples with its latest tainted food crisis, the political elite are served the choicest, safest delicacies. They get hormone-free beef from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, organic tea from the foothills of Tibet and rice watered by melted mountain snow.
And it's all supplied by a special government outfit that provides all-organic goods from farms working under the strictest guidelines.
That secure food supply stands in stark contrast to the frustrations of ordinary citizens who have faced recurring food scandals — vegetables with harmful pesticide residue, fish tainted with a cancer-causing chemical, eggs colored with industrial dye, fake liquor causing blindness or death, holiday pastries with bacteria-laden filling.
Now that the country's most reputable dairies have been found selling baby formula and other milk products tainted with an industrial chemical that can cause kidney stones and kidney failure, many Chinese don't know what to buy. Tens of thousands of children have been sickened and four babies have died.
Knowing that their leaders do not face these problems has made some people angry.
"Food safety is a high priority for children and families of government officials, so are normal citizens less entitled to safe food?" asked Zhong Lixun, feeding her 7-month-old grandson baby formula after he got checked for kidney stones at Beijing Children's Hospital.
The State Council Central Government Offices Special Food Supply Center is specifically designed to avoid the problems troubling the general population.
"We all know that average production facilities use large quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Antibiotics and hormones are commonly used in raising livestock and poultry. Farmed aquatic products are contaminated by various kinds of water pollution," the center's director, Zhu Yonglan, said in a speech.
"It goes without saying that these are harmful when consumed by humans," Zhu told executives at supplier Shandong Ke'er Biological Medical Technology Development Co., which posted it on its Web site earlier this year.
Zhu's speech has been widely circulated by Chinese Internet users on blogs and forums in recent days, with many expressing outrage that top government officials have a separate — and safer — food supply than the public.
The special food center enforces strict standards on suppliers like Shandong Ke'er, which makes health supplements designed to boost immunity and energy. Foods must be organic, not genetically modified and meet international food standards, said a manager in the center's product department, who only gave her surname, Zhang.
The reason: its A-list clientele of government officials and retirees of vice minister rank or higher.
It's not unusual for China's leadership to have a special food supply; the practice stretches back thousands of years to farms providing ingredients for lavish imperial meals or the greasy, spicy dishes favored by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.
The former Soviet Union's ruling classes also ate food that was unavailable to the masses. In North Korea, where withering famines have seen tens of thousands starve over the past 13 years, leader Kim Jong Il is a gourmet known for his love of lobster, shark's fin soup and sushi. His former private chef has said Kim keeps an extensive collection of vintage French wines.
Set up in 2004, China's Special Food Supply Center is almost as secretive as its high-end clientele, whose precise number is unclear, but includes hundreds of top political leaders, their families and retired cadres. Much of the information on its Web site was removed after media inquiries and interview requests this week.
Goods deemed to meet the highest standards are stamped with the label "Nation A," which stands for "top end, irreplaceable, the best," according to the Web site. Those products are for senior politicians or government offices and not released to the general consumer market, said a customer service agent surnamed Dong.
Rice fed by melted snow from Mt. Changbai, which straddles the China-North Korean border, gets a "Nation A" rating, according to the Web site.
The center scours the country for purveyors in places famous for a particular product, said Zhang, the manager.
These include fish from Hubei province — known traditionally as the "land of fish and rice" — tea from mountainous Yunnan province abutting Tibet, and beef and mutton from the Inner Mongolian steppes, according to Zhu's speech.
As for rice, some comes from the northeast, grown from seeds specially cultivated by experts from the Jilin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said sales manager Wu Honghua of Chifeng Heiyupaozi Organic Agropastoral Development Co.
It "has a very small output. It tastes very good. And it doesn't involve genetic engineering," said Wu.
Wu said 90 percent of the rice goes to the Beidaihe Sanitorium — a seaside resort for retired party cadres. The remainder is sold on the market, he said, at $4 a pound — a price five times higher than regular organic rice and 15 times more than the price of ordinary rice.
A brand of organic tea supplied to the center sells for $187 a pound. "It's fresh and tender, smells good and has a bright color," said Xia Dan, an employee of the Huiming Tea Co. in eastern Zhejiang province.
The latest food safety scandal began with tainted baby formula from one company, but widened to include products from 22 of China's dairies. Countries as far away as Kenya and Colombia have banned or recalled Chinese dairy imports, while cakes, candies and other products made with milk products have come under suspicion.
Since the scandal broke earlier this month, sales of Chinese milk have plummeted after top dairies Mengniu Dairy Group Co. and Yili Industrial Group Co. were found to have sold contaminated milk.
Chinese looking for reassurance have turned to one company not named in any recalls — Sanyuan Foods Ltd.
It proudly advertises that its milk is used for state banquets at the Great Hall of the People and has seen its sales triple in Beijing, while demand has outstripped supply in at least one province. And that's despite the fact that its price — about $1.60 a quart — is 25 percent higher than other brands.