Eating Safely in China, on a Budget
The deal last week by Shuanghui, China's largest pork producer, to buy U.S. pork company Smithfield at a big premium shows how much Chinese are willing to pay for safe food.
After a spate of food scandals, it is no surprise that consumers in China are hugely concerned about food safety. David Laris, a chef and creator of several high-end restaurants in Shanghai, reckons that if a family of four in Shanghai eats just organic food, the grocery bill would be about $600 a week. 'At home, we spend too much money buying food; there is no shortcut financially, ' he said.
But industry insiders, doctors and consumers say there are ways to reduce the risks of eating food produced in China without going over budget.
Mr. Laris says he can't run a profitable restaurant selling all organic food, so he uses a combination of imported food and carefully sourced local ingredients.
It is ironic for a country that has a goal of moving people from farms to cities that some city dwellers now say they are growing their own vegetables and rice, and making their own bread and yogurt.
China Resources Group's Wu Feng Butchers, a distributor of mainland beef and pork in Hong Kong, now is also serving its home market with export-quality products as demand grows.
Oil from restaurant waste bins and gutters are often packaged and resold as cooking oil after some rudimentary reprocessing. When her family eats out, they order pizzas, because that is less likely to use local oil.
Milk for children is one area where most people won't compromise, so they buy imported dairy products. The country's dairy industry hasn't recovered from a 2008 scandal in which an estimated 300, 000 babies were sickened and six were killed by tainted powdered-milk formula.
Foreign brands of baby formulas can sell for up to twice as much as domestic brands. But they often use nonfat milk powder and add vegetable oil, which may be harder for babies to digest. A lot of domestic brands now use imported raw ingredients, so the price gap hardly looks justifiable for budget-conscious consumers.
Rice is another staple that Chinese consume in large quantities. Last month, the government reported that nearly half the samples of rice in Guangzhou bore cadmium above permissible levels news that struck a nerve across China. Consumers may be better off buying foreign rice, despite the cost. Imported Thai rice in Shanghai, at $3 per kilogram, is almost 50% more expensive than the price in Hong Kong.
Buy a water purifier. They range from simple attach-to-the-faucet models to more-elaborate filtering systems. But even the expensive models are far cheaper than bottled water and are effective in removing much of the pollutants from the water.
Find a number of brands that you trust, and rotate among them. Don't buy all your eggs from the same basket, even if it is a well-trusted Western brand. In 2011, some Wal-Mart stores in China were accused by officials in Chongqing of mislabeling regular pork as 'organic.' The incident led to the temporary closure of 13 stores and a fine of 3.65 million yuan ($596, 000). Since then, Wal-Mart has overhauled management at its stores in Chongqing and implemented a food-safety compliance system in the company's stores across the nation.
Big brands aren't necessarily better. 'You may want to drink cow milk for 11 months and buffalo milk for a month, and have some quail eggs instead of just chicken eggs, ' said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research.
大品牌未必就是更好的。中国市场研究（China Market Research）董事总经理Shaun Rein说，你可以一年中有11个月喝牛奶，然后有一个月喝水牛奶，或者是把鸡蛋和鹌鹑蛋搭配着吃。水牛奶因为是个新的行业，希望它还没有染上一些旧毛病。
Shuanghui's big pig deal wasn't an accident. Some of the worst problems with food in China from dead pigs floating in a river in Shanghai to fox and rat meat disguised as beef and lamb occur in meat. While vegetables aren't immune to problems like toxic soil and pesticides, they are less likely to carry large amounts of antibiotics and hormones.
Not surprisingly, vegetarianism is gaining traction among health-conscious urbanites in China, though it is still uncommon in much of the country. 'Vegetable is the lesser of two evils, ' said Sandy Chen, research director of consumer consultancy TNS. Even former Premier Wen Jiabao proposed a nationwide campaign of 'one vegetarian day every week.'
It's hard to be completely safe when living in China. But if shoppers spend wisely, they can dramatically improve their food safety while staying within a budget.