Late last month, news broke that a major Chinese supplier of American fast food brands was peddling meat that violated food safety standards.
How do such scandals affect the way people in China feed themselves and their families? Chang Tianle, a former researcher and China Program Officer for the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy who now runs food cooperatives for organic farmers in Beijing talked to ChinaFile’s Michael Zhao.
Michael Zhao: What was your reaction to the news?
Chang Tianle: To be honest, I wasn’t at all surprised. Scandals like this are constantly occurring around big food companies, both inside and outside of China, and they always have a very wide impact. My first reaction was that maybe this development would dispel the common myth, held by consumers, government monitoring agencies, and policymakers alike, that foreign food companies are safer than domestic ones. The truth is that the bigger the food companies get, the greater the risk. And because big food companies have such complex supply chains and handle such massive quantities of food, the number of consumers and subsidiary companies that suffer consequences when problems like this come to light is becoming ever larger. The 2013 horse meat scandal in England, the contaminated cucumber scare in Europe a few years back, and the endless stream of multimillion-dollar food recalls in the United States all prove this point.
How could something like this happen? Why did it happen?
In addition to the difficulty of keeping watch over increasingly large and complex supply chains, food manufacturing has become overly centralized (thanks to this incident, Chinese consumers now realize how many restaurants use the same supplier), and consumers’ rising demand for cheap food products has led suppliers to cut costs as much as possible, sacrificing quality. Those are the underlying reasons. Direct reasons include poor internal oversight on the part of food companies, as well as bad decision-making by employees for reasons that are still obscure—perhaps because of pressures from within the company to achieve certain results.
What do you normally eat? What do you avoid eating? Do many Chinese people eat like you do?
As one of the organizers of the Beijing Farmers’ Market, I get most of my food from organic farmers who sell their produce at our markets, so most of my food comes from familiar sources near Beijing. Because of my work, I’ve visited the farms where almost all of the food on my table was grown or raised and I know the environment in which it was produced and am familiar with the production process. The services and initiatives of the Beijing Farmers Market have allowed many more Beijing residents to adopt eating habits like mine, and a growing number of consumers now have an intimate knowledge of where and how their food was produced and are careful to buy food that’s free of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and chemical additives. Similar farmers’ markets and consumer groups have sprung up in places like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Xi’an. By making sure that the food they eat is safe, consumers are also helping to protect the environment and to keep local organic farmers in business. It’s a win-win situation.
There’s nothing that I absolutely avoid eating. I do go to restaurants occasionally—if they’re good. When I order food in restaurants I avoid chicken (factory-farmed chicken is more likely to have been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and it also tastes terrible), greasy dishes (which might have been fried in gutter oil), and salads (which may contain pesticide residues; also, a lot of salad dressings are very unhealthy). I don’t eat seafood in cheap or moderately-priced restaurants. I try not to drink bottled beverages or eat processed foods, which all contain chemical additives. I steer clear of packaged sweets, which may contain hydrogenated oils (trans fats) posing as butter. In sum, I eat natural foods, and natural foods simply taste better. All these habits have just served to steer me in the direction of food that agrees with my palate. I don’t have to make any sacrifices as far as taste is concerned.
Translated by Austin Woerner.
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