More than two months after the scandal over tainted milk hit the headlines in China and abroad, more details keep coming to light. The chemical melamine that at first was only found in baby milk powder has since been detected in eggs, biscuits and other products. Some countries, such as the US, have issued “import alerts” for products “made in China”. The domestic Chinese market has also taken a hit. Although the authorities keep reassuring consumers that food is safe, many consumers have doubts about what they are eating.
A wary supermarket customer checks the ingredients closely
It’s a busy morning at this supermarket in eastern Beijing. In the fruit and vegetable section, young sales assistants in orange aprons are calling out to shoppers across the aisles.
Most of the customers are sorting through the heaps of carrots, potatoes, dragon fruit and oranges carefully. With its vast selection of domestic and imported foods, the supermarket is trying to address consumer concerns. A big sign reads: “The food chain is controlled from the field to the plate”.
Some customers, like this man, are not at all concerned: “Our government has taken these food scandals very seriously. I am not worried. I buy what I need, what I don’t need, I don’t buy,” he says laughing.
In the dairy section, the shelves are piled high with milk and yoghurt cartons. A young man grabs a box full of milk and carries it to the check-out counter: “I am not worried at all. This milk is all right. We Chinese just take things as they come. Labels? No, I don’t check labels. I trust our government.”
Some consumers are increasingly worried
But many other consumers do not share this same trust and are worried about food safety.
On a bench outside the supermarket, a young mother, Zhao Hui, is consoling her five-month-old baby son.
“I check where food has been produced very carefully,” she says. “I read labels and check the ingredients. When I go shopping, I only buy brand names. I also read the papers and watch television and follow all the news about food safety very closely.”
Some customers are straying away from the mega stores towards a different kind of supermarket -- organic supermarkets. “Sales have increased drastically, especially for milk and eggs,” explains Jackson Ng, who works at Lohao, one of the capital’s first organic shops.
Organic products bring peace of mind
Ng says China’s still tiny organic sector has benefited from growing consumer anxiety. The shop offers everything from organic milk to organic biscuits, pasta and rice on three floors. Lohao even grows its own fruit and vegetables on a farm outside the capital.
Customers who shop at Lohao are prepared to pay more for their groceries. The extra money buys them peace of mind.
“The stuff is very safe in this shop,” says one woman who is “very worried” about food in China, especially the fact that a lot of chemicals are used. She says she is “very anxious about health”.
But while China’s growing middle-class can afford to go organic, the vast majority of consumers lack the means to follow suit. Most Chinese have no choice but to rely on the authorities to ensure that the food they eat is actually safe.