BEIJING (Reuters) - Fish could give you cancer, snails meningitis and baby milk may kill your children — barely a day goes by without some new food horror story in China.
This is helping drive sales in another, though still tiny, food sector in China — organic produce.
But a loose regulatory framework and sometimes just plain confusion about what exactly constitutes organic food has proven to be a stumbling block, experts say.
“It’s been a difficult start, but gradually there has become more of a domestic market, and I think it will take off in the next few years,” said Paul Thiers, an associate professor at Washington State University.
“The food safety scares are a definite driver of people’s desire to buy organic, and I think that’s true in urban China as much as it is in other parts of the world,” added Thiers, who is also a visiting professor at China Agricultural University.
China has 5.7 million acres of certified organic farmland, according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, although that is less than 1 percent of the country’s total farmed land.
Sales grew an estimated 50 percent last year, but a lot of China’s organic produce is actually exported.
Even President Hu Jintao has waded in. Last month he called for greater efforts to develop organic farming, showing just how concerned Beijing has become about food and consumer safety.
While tales of heavy metals in vegetables, poisonous dyes in eggs and fake drugs have been a staple diet of the Chinese press for the past few years, it has taken pet deaths in the United States to draw world attention to the problem.
Two food processors in China are suspected of adding the chemical melamine to vegetable proteins used in feed for pets, hogs, poultry and fish. It was also detected in animal feed, but U.S. officials insist that presents no real risk to humans.
A clutch of dedicated shops have sprung up in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities, and major supermarket chains are also starting to offer organic fruits, vegetables, meat and washing up liquid too.
“Domestic consumption of organic food is growing, partly attributed to worries over food safety, but exports are the major reason for growth,” said Luo Min, an official with the China Organic Food Development Center, which helps with certification.
Those exports were worth some $300 million last year, according to the center’s figures.
Such figures are music to the ears of Zhang Lingyu, who was jailed for 102 days for promoting pesticide-free food in the 1970s, at a time when the government prioritized chemical use to squeeze ever higher yields out of China’s limited farmland.
“At that time they thought I was mad. How could you produce farm products without chemical fertilizer and pesticides?” said Zhang, whose company San’an Agriculture promotes “safe food.”
“But now I’m welcomed everywhere. Local governments have found their products are hard to sell because of the residues,” he told Reuters.
“China depends on its cheap prices to push its products on the world market, but it ignored safety. Residues from pesticides and fertilizers are too high,” Zhang said.
Yet China’s promotion of organic food has run into problems, not least from a confusion of names, including “non-pollution” food and “green food,” which would not be considered truly organic in the West.
“There are different standards and various organizations, which conduct the certification. Some of the standards can only be applied to the domestic market,” Luo said.
Perhaps not surprisingly in a country notorious for pirated handbags, movies and many other products, fake labels have proved to be a headache for organic suppliers.
“Distrust of certification labels is a big problem in the domestic market. People just don’t know what to believe. That’s where things have gotten a little better in the last few years, but that was very difficult early on,” Thiers said.
“For consumers in urban China who are really looking for a way to get around this food safety problem, it’s very difficult to know what to believe, and some kind of certification, even if it doesn’t meet a top-notch organic standard for the world, may be attractive to them as an additional effort at food safety.”
One up-market restaurant in Beijing thinks it knows how to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to real organic produce, though.
“You can’t always test,” said a manager, who declined to be identified. “But our cook can tell the difference.”