Fully sustainable organic meat farms, crops nourished with pure filtered rainwater and cattle cared for using traditional medicine are perhaps not the first things that spring to mind when thinking about the Chinese food production system.
But in a country where the subject of food safety is constantly bubbling away like a spicy Sichuan hotpot, a surprising number of food producers are adapting their production methods in an effort to drive sustainable change and continue raising an industry standard that has already seen significant upheaval.
One of the biggest barometers for progress in the Chinese food industry is the dairy sector which, in large part as a response to the tainted baby-milk formula scandal in 2008, has paved the way for a number of ethical dairy suppliers to implement reform.
A date for the dairy
According to Clara Pi FCSI, Hong Kong-based nutritionist and director of FCG, the fallout of the milk formula scandal was far-reaching and is still being felt some seven years later: “The melamine incident has become a political and social unrest issue as people in China are flocking to Hong Kong to buy infant milk formula, in turn causing a shortage for Hong Kong residents. The only way to resolve this is to revamp the milk industry in China.”
One such example of the overhaul to which Pi refers is the Green Yard dairy, actually founded a year before the scandal in question by a group headed by farmer Wang Zhanli. Widely recognised as the first fully organic dairy in China, Green Yard prides itself on putting in place production practices that meet or even exceed those in Europe.
And although Chinese milk consumption still relies heavily on imports, ventures pioneered by those such as Green Yard have undoubtedly been a success. In a 2014 visit to the Yili dairy, China’s largest dairy company, president Xi Jinping praised the way it has helped instigate new business strategies on “quality comes first” and “technology-driven innovations” to enable product and process traceability via QR codes and scanning by mobile phones.
How to meat new standards
The meat industry is another that has come under particularly heavy scrutiny, none more so than in the sale of mislabelled and expired meat by several fast-food giants in 2014. Issues such as this have seen the evolution of organic farms like Huimingshan, located in the mountains of southwest Anhui province, and the Natural Poultry Group (NPG), a poultry supplier committed to the highest standards of biosecurity and animal welfare.
USDA figures show that pork consumption in China surpassed 50 million tonnes in 2012, making it the meat of choice for Chinese consumers. But rather than jump on the industrialised pork production bandwagon, Zhu Xianwen from Huimingshan describes how the company is striving to do things a little differently; “We at Huimingshan are part of a national ecological demonstration zone where sustainable farming methods are practised to lower the carbon footprint and protect the environment.
“The result is a business philosophy that supports the growth of the organic food industry in China, an entire farm that follows fully organic practices, and a high quality product that is safe and ethical.”
The Natural Poultry Group tells a similar story. Committed to chemical and antibiotic-free farming practices, it is a group of scientists, veterinarians and farmers that has identified the issues that exist in the poultry production system and set about developing ways to improve them.
A hard sell?
If any sort of positives have emerged from the recent food safety issues, it is that they have drawn attention to and driven a demand for better quality, which is helping to galvanise new innovations such as ethical food production. The shift in how the market is moving and in particular the ways in which two such important sectors as meat and dairy are operating is tangible.
But after so many false dawns and disappointments, will Chinese consumers prove hard to convince? In a 2013 interview given to the state-run English language newspaper China Daily, Green Yard general manager Hou Xuejun describes one of the hurdles the company has faced: “Many people don’t like our products because it is a domestic brand,” he says. “And the reason our prices are higher is because the availability of suitable organic land in China is very limited.”
When products come with a higher price tag – typically two to three times more expensive than the cheapest competitors – many consumers continue to ask why they should be expected to pay more for a product that, after all, is still “Made in China”, a label associated with failings across a number of industries, not just food.
People’s suspicions, coupled with the rising disparity between the average disposable income in rural and urban areas, could be the biggest challenges facing any new-look food industry.
For the timebeing, these companies represent just a tiny piece of the enormous pie that is Chinese food production, but as knowledge about them and others like them continues to grow, what this represents is something far more significant that can be seen spreading among retailers both online and off.
“As people in China are beginning to realise the importance of food safety and healthy eating habits, things like health food restaurants and retailers are becoming very popular. The dietetics profession in China is also looking at revising its Healthy Eating Food Guide soon,” says Clara Pi.
“Currently, there is still a problem with food safety in China. But both the government and people are now aware of the seriousness of the problem. That’s the first step towards any improvement.”