Li Lan, a 38-year-old architect in Shanghai, wants to provide safe, healthy meals for her husband and four year old son. But in China it’s not so simple. The issue of food safety is a real, constant concern.
Every week Li hears news stories on TV about tainted food. Just this year, there have been reports about exploding watermelons, pork masquerading as beef, and dirty recycled cooking oil.
“It’s scary,” said Li. “You realize that what you’re eating is dirty or has lots of chemicals in it. How can we eat that? It could kill someone! It’s terrible.”
Li shops at a neighborhood vegetable market in Shanghai. She usually buys fruits and vegetables here, hoping they don’t contain too many pesticides. She buys brand-name meat, tofu and canned goods at the supermarket where hygiene standards are higher.
Many of her friends are buying organic, but Li is still on the fence.
“I compare prices. If organic food is too expensive, I’d rather buy regular produce from the vegetable market,” she said, adding that most people can’t afford to buy organic.
The organic industry is growing in China, with many organic operations exporting to the US and other countries. But middle-class Chinese are starting to buy organic as well.
“In China, it is very different,” said Richard Brubaker, professor of sustainability at the China-Europe International Business School in Shanghai. “It’s not about health and improving of health; it’s about food safety and maintaining a basic integrity in the food, primarily for their children.”
Brubaker added that in a country where “fakes” are prevalent, people are wary.
“No one knows which labels to trust. There are multiple labels, and they each have their own questions of integrity,” Brubaker said.
On this weekend, Li Lan and her family have traveled across town to check out a monthly farmers market, where 10 local farmers hawk their produce. The farmers hope to build trust by meeting face to face with shoppers.
One farmer tells a customer that he doesn’t have an organic certificate, but he’s growing his vegetables safely, without using chemicals.The farmers here say they’re not seeking organic certification because the process is lengthy and expensive. Lora Shen, who runs Dreamy Farm with her husband’s family, added that some organic certificates are fakes and can be bought with bribes.
“If you have money, you can get one easily,” she said.
Rice farmer Jia Rei Ming said he doesn’t think he needs the organic label.
“Most of our customers know us and have been to our farm. It’s a vote of confidence,” Jia said.
Even if he tried for certification, though, he might not get it.
Jiang Yi Fan, the farmers’ market organizer, said China’s polluted water supply makes it hard for local farmers to get a real organic label. He said shoppers should still support natural farms, even if they don’t have an organic label.
“If the farmers promise not to use chemicals, that is already a big gain,” Jiang said.
One of the shoppers here, a magazine editor named Lili Li, opened her bag to show me the watermelon she just bought. She said it was just picked this morning.
“When I buy watermelon at a normal stand, it’s too sweet, almost unnatural,” she said. “I’ve heard rumors that some farmers use an artificial sweetener so that makes me nervous.” She said that she comes here to the farmers market because she thinks the producer is fresh and safe, and because she can talk directly to the farmer.But while natural farming is bringing consumers closer to their food, Richard Brubaker, at the China-Europe International Business School, cautioned that it may give them a false sense of security.
In China, he said, you have to consider what’s going on in the next field. “They could be the cleanest most organic farm that took five years to clean out their fields, they could be doing everything right, but it’s the people next door who could be the ones contaminating.”
For now, Li Lan, the architect, continues to shop for vegetables at her neighborhood produce market. But she worries.
“If it’s labeled organic, is it really organic?” Li said. “If it is naturally produced but doesn’t have an organic or food safety label, I worry that it hasn’t been inspected by a third party. What about the packaging process? Is it really hygienic and up to standard?”
Li said she’s not a suspicious person, but she just doesn’t who to trust.