Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Busting Butchers; Buyer Beware

In 2010 the Chinese government announced a crackdown on illegal butchers who slaughter sick or dead hogs and breeding sows. Local newspaper accounts reporting on the raids reveal that underground butchers are widespread, hard to stamp out, and the story highlights the degree of uncertainty modern Chinese consumers face as the number of intermediaries between them and the source of their food increases. It seems to be a classic case of a "lemon market" where no one knows whether the food they're buying might be fake or dangerous.

On November 10, a 50-person enforcement team from commerce and police departments in Hengyang City, Henan province, swooped down on a village in a convoy of 6 vehicles rode at 2:30 am, "wearing helmets and neatly dressed," where they found an illegal butcher operation with lights blazing in a village house. They seized 11 sick pigs and slaughtering equipment.

The head of the city industry-commerce bureau enforcement team triumphantly pronounced that “The 'strike hard on underground slaughter special activity' has been in planning for a while and has won a great victory!”

However, this official's comments reveal the continued prevalence of underground butchers. The official describes them as "...entrenched in strategic terrain" and "hard to combat."

Dead pigs in Guangxi Province

The underground butchers in Hengyang are so brazen they were distributing flyers in the local market inviting vendors to "go underground." So many pigs were being slaughtered illegally that the city's legal slaughterhouses were operating under capacity, at less than 300 hogs per day.

"Hengyang City is firmly determined...to destroy the stubborn group, purifying the market, letting the city population eat 'worry-free' pork." However, one wonders whether the crackdown is for the benefit of consumers or to protect the monopoly of the legal slaughterhouses.

On August 26, a similar 2:30 am raid was conducted in Tunlu village, near Nanning in Guangxi Province. This raid also required a 50-person team to storm a smelly wooden shed where seven men wearing rubber boots were slicing up sick, dead pigs and old sows. The butchers fled in all directions when the raiding party arrived, apparently eluding all 50 of the officers. They seized 49 sick or dead pigs and culled breeding sows plus a freezer full of pig feet.

According to the Nanning enforcement officer, the sick or dead pigs may carry germs. The breeding sows may have hormones in their bodies that could be dangerous to old people or children if they eat them. The enforcement team reported seeing a procession of motorcycles and three-wheeled carts arriving to pick up pork to deliver to markets, fast food restaurants, and factory cafeterias.

The Nanning official assures readers that "most" of the pork in local markets is safe. Pork from dead and sick pigs only constitutes a small part of it. He advises people to buy pork from legal markets and supermarkets where pork is "relatively" safe. This was the first of a series of crackdowns to be conducted during the mid-Autumn festival season last fall.

A December article about another raid near Nanning reveals more about the fake pork issue. This raid turned up 3 sick hogs being butchered in one village and a freezer crammed full of putrid pork in another. According to the officials, seasoning will be added to this meat to cover up the nasty taste and then sold to restaurants or school cafeterias.

This article asks why underground butchers are so resilient. There are substantial fines on the books for people caught selling bad meat, but when underground slaughterhouses are raided no one will admit to being the boss and the "owner" of the building cannot be located. Apparently, village officials don't cooperate with enforcement personnel. Sick or dead pork doesn't pose an immediate threat to consumers' health, so many people don't try very hard to crack down on the illegal butchers.

When butchers in Guangxi noticed authorities were cracking down, they began butchering only a few hogs at a time to evade detection, keeping their inventory hidden.

There is a strong profit motive involved. Sick, dead, or culled hogs can be bought at low prices and sold at slightly less than the market price. Thus, the profit per kg is high.

The practice of passing off pork as beef highlights the "buyer beware" phenomenon that pervades the Chinese food market. It seems that the meat from culled sows is being sold in the market as beef. The sows can be bought at 6 yuan per kg and sold as beef at 36 yuan per kg. The article says it is hard to tell whether beef is real or fake. Consumers say it's authentic beef if it has a grassy smell.

The uncertainty is heightened when authorities may be complicit in the business. While the raids described above apparently brought along journalists to make sure they got publicity, a solo journalist in Anhui Province investigating on his own didn't get far. After getting a tip from "Old Zhang" that sick pigs were being slaughtered and sold, an investigative reporter in Hefei City spent late nights poking around a slaughterhouse outside the second ring road.

He entered the slaughterhouse and saw pigs that appeared to be sick, with red rashes and large growths on their abdomens. He struck up a conversation with a worker, pretending to be interested in buying pigs. The worker told him the price was relatively high, at 9 yuan per jin, but they also had some at 6 yuan. But when he asked whether they had sick pigs for sale, the worker became suspicious and bellowed, "What are you up to?" and chased off the reporter. The intrepid reporter then spent the wee hours peeking through the window and saw a dead pig hanging from the ceiling.

A local government enforcement officials accompanied the reporter to the slaughterhouse. The reporter noticed that some pigs at the slaughterhouse were much smaller than their usual slaughter weight. He was told that these were not sick pigs; farmers were worried that their pigs would not survive the severe hot weather and sold their pigs early. As for the sick pigs he saw in the slaughterhouse, he was told some pigs get sick on the way to the slaughterhouse. All the sick ones are separated and disposed of safely.

When asked about the cheaper 6-yuan pigs, the official denied that they were sick, saying the idea was "nonsense." The official acknowledged that there were sick pigs around but the inspectors found them in the slaughterhouse and their carcasses were burned. The reporter was left puzzled about why some pigs were cheaper.

In the end, the reporter's investigation could not obtain any conclusive results. An eyewitness assured him that sick pigs were slaughtered but the reporter could find no proof.

Finally, a November 2009 article from Lanzhou reports on fake mutton used for kebabs that are popular in winter. A Mrs. Wang bought some mutton to make soup, but a nasty brown foam formed and it gave off a foul odor. Her husband told her it was not real mutton--it was fake.

The reporter went to the Lanzhou market to look for fake mutton. He asked vendors if they had any mutton cheaper than the going price of 15 yuan per jin. One vendor told him that if anyone offered him mutton for 10 yuan he shouldn't eat it because it would be fake. Some people mix goat, meat from dead sheep, poor quality meat or pork mixed with sheep fat and dyed dark red and pass it off as mutton.

The reporter bought some lamb kebabs from a small restaurant and felt that the kebabs did not taste like real lamb. Sure enough, the restaurant operator openly admitted that he passed off pork as lamb.

"It’s no secret, everybody uses it," said one shopkeeper. "What does it matter if it’s not lamb; it doesn’t harm anyone!"

Lamb sells at wholesale for 12.5 yuan per jin and kebabs sell for 0.8 yuan each. In order to make money restaurants buy cheap frozen pork that has been stored a while for several yuan per jin. The color and taste are not good. They use sheep fat or lamb flavoring, mix it with meat tenderizer and soak it overnight, "and it becomes fresh meat." They say it's hard to tell the meat is fake. According to the article, this kind of meat is the first choice for many mutton stalls.

An article from Zhengzhou last week reported on a man who was upset that lamb kebabs bought in supermarkets and convenience stores had pork mixed in with the lamb. However, in this case the ingredients were listed on the package which included a QS government certification and the company's contact information. The person at the company answering the phone claimed to be a salesman and not knowledgeable about the issue; it was a question of whether the food standard allowed mixing pork with lamb. Still confusion, but at least there is progress in getting past the trickery and deception.

If labels are truthful and accurate, the next step is for the buyer to know what to beware of.

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