When Chengdu resident Tian Hao, 45, visits his neighborhood supermarket, he stays away from the best-looking fruit and vegetables.
“If they are big or beautiful, they’re not normal. If they have no holes or marks on them or their roots, we avoid them,” he told Insider. “Sometimes, the vegetables they put on display still have pesticides and chemicals on them. It takes an experienced eye to know what you can buy there.”
His distrust of commercial produce, like that of millions of people in China, can be traced back to a single event in 2008. That year, China discovered that local milk products for babies had been laced with melamine, an industrial chemical used in plastics and fertilizers. Nearly 300,000 infants fell ill after consuming the contaminated milk, and at least 50 of them died from kidney stones.
Beijing responded to the tragedy with life imprisonment for several milk executives, forced resignations of seven municipal officials, and the executions of a dairy farmer and a milk salesman.
As China’s middle class continues to grow at an astonishing rate — in 2000, only 3% of the country was considered middle class, where now nearly 50% of the population falls into a middle-class income bracket — so has its concern around food quality.
Especially as a deluge of food scandals continue to roil the country. While state media has debunked photoshopped images of chickens with six wings and eight legs, China’s middle class still has reason to be skeptical. Scandals – including hawkers mixing raw sewage with waste fat from slaughterhouses to sell as cooking oil, and reports that some boba tea pearls had been made from leather and rubber bits – leave a bad taste in many mouths.
Everyone in every city worries about this, whether you are in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, or Chengdu.
The regular onslaught of food safety issues means that even 13 years after the milk scandal, many Chinese limit themselves to buying just a few vegetables and rice at the supermarket.
Tian, who works at a social agency, said he rarely visits his local grocery store these days.
He’s one of the thousands across China who now orders produce directly from small-time rural farmers while trying their best to avoid the dubious national supply chain.
Every week, boxes and baskets arrive at Tian’s apartment laden with supplies, including whole plucked chickens, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, or lentils, all grown or reared in villages just a few hours outside the city.
Buying direct is more expensive than shopping at traditional wet markets or supermarkets. Where a market chicken in Chengdu typically costs around $8, one farmer charges Tian up to $28 for a chicken. But he feels the expense is worth it, especially when it comes to providing for his 13-year-old daughter.
“When she was born, I started paying attention to what we’re eating,” he said. “Quality of our food is a big concern for the middle class in China, especially if you have a family. Everyone in every city worries about this, whether you are in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, or Chengdu.”
“There’s no official contract. It’s a relationship between us.”
Even brand-name goods sold in China’s grocery stores are often not what they seem; knock-off and counterfeit products are ubiquitous.
From May to November 2020, for example, China recorded more than 1,400 instances of counterfeit products sold in markets.
“Purchasing food with trusted brand names does not offer complete assurance when consumers cannot be certain of the veracity of the brand label,” Gregory Veeck, a professor at Western Michigan University, wrote in a 2020 paper. “Likewise, labels such as ‘green,’ ‘local,’ or ‘organic’ lose power when consumers cannot be sure that the product has been grown and processed as promoted.”
That’s why ad hoc agreements with farmers have become increasingly popular, said Dr. Si Zhenzhong, a researcher at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada whose work focuses on food and agriculture in China.
The milk scandal may have been more than a decade ago, but Si said that when his research team surveyed 1,210 households in Nanjing, China, in 2015, 74% said they still worried daily about food safety.
Si estimates there are more than 500 village farms in China delivering their produce to consumers’ doorsteps, though the figure may actually be closer to a thousand.
“Consumers started organizing themselves and sourcing food from farmers they felt they could trust,” said Si, who’s also a co-investigator for Hungry Cities Partnership, a network of organizations assessing urban food safety in countries including China.
Part of that trust comes from the fact that many Chinese people in the city are closely related to farmers through friends or family. “A lot of Chinese urban people still have relatives in the countryside. In four decades, China tripled its urbanization rate from 20% to 61%. The US spent 100 years reaching that increase,” said Si.
Zhao Ping, 47, who works in hotel management, used to get his pork through a pig farmer who’s a distant relative of his wife.
He and seven friends would make the two-hour drive every few months to the rural town of Le Shan and visit the farm. A few days before the Chinese Lunar New Year, they’d usually each buy one pig — about a year’s meat supply for Zhao’s family of four — at around $3.60 per pound.
The arrangement gave him almost total control over the pig’s rearing. “We would go there every few months and observe the pigs. They let us choose what the pigs eat. If we want them to eat better feed and it is more expensive, we’ll pay a little extra for it,” he told Insider.
But then, in 2019, a particularly virulent strain of African swine flu wiped out the farmer’s entire hog supply, said Zhao. His family switched from pork to poultry and now buys chickens through a farmer he found online.
He pays the farmer a deposit of $300 a year, and in return, gets to pick several hens from the village flock every month at around $11.50 a bird.
“I don’t mind buying eggs from the supermarket, but not chicken,” said Zhao, who said he’s concerned about industrial farms potentially feeding or injecting their flocks with chemicals.
Most people can’t afford to improve their food safety
Tian and Zhao both recognize their grocery habits require one critical resource: money.
“I think many people have concerns, but many don’t have a choice. If we want to eat safer, we have to pay more,” said Tian, who spends 40% of his income on food for his family. In comparison, most Chinese urban consumers allocate around 20% of their spending on dining out and essential food ingredients, according to a 2020 report by management consulting firm McKinsey.
For most Chinese people, the big solution for their food safety concerns is to do nothing about it, said Dr. Anders Hansen, a social anthropologist from Aarhus University in Denmark who researches food supplies and culture in modern China.
“It’s not much of a strategy at all, but it’s like closing your eyes and saying: ‘I know this problem’s there, but I can’t do anything about that at all,” said Hansen, who spent months researching and living on small farms in northern China that sell food to cities.
“Most people cannot afford to up their food safety. They don’t have the time for it because it’s very time-consuming to be a food safety-wise consumer,” he added.
In fact, many farmers and industrial farms overuse pesticides to protect their crop yields because they can’t afford not to, said Hansen.
China is also the world’s largest consumer of
“We have to feed so many people in China. If you let the pigs and chickens and vegetables grow naturally, it will take a long time and cost a lot,” Tian said.
Chinese authorities have tried allaying the public’s fears by revamping food safety laws and introducing QR codes on products to let customers track their food. “World Consumer Rights Day,” an annual nationwide televised event on March 15, involves naming and shaming foreign and domestic brands who have engaged in poor business practices, including food safety violations.
The government really needs to test this whole system in a way that can foster public trust.
These measures have given more “teeth” to food safety governance, but the government still has a long way to go, said Si. Beijing is keen to implement a nationwide food traceability system, but China’s food supply chain is simply too massive to keep an eye on everything.
“There are many factors involved in the current food supply chain. It sources food from multiple small [farms] and goes through a long supply chain of wholesalers and dealers and brokers,” he said.
He and Hansen believe the government should double down on making the supply chain more transparent and look at how small farms have built personal networks and relationships with their customers.
“The buyers trust the producers because they know them. There’s this whole issue of trust that needs more attention,” said Si. “The government really needs to test this whole system in a way that can foster public trust.”
But right now, said Hansen: “The Chinese state government’s approach to food safety has nothing to do with trust. It’s based on control. It’s based on knowledge.”