Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Expediency Overrules Regulation in China's Countryside

A Consumer Daily reporter investigating meat markets in China's hinterland found that the strict food safety regulatory apparatus was just an empty shell in towns and villages. 

The reporter visited meat markets in several small towns in Xichuan County in Henan Province's southwest corner. Towns and villages in this area line the rivers flowing through mountain valleys into the Dujiangyan Reservoir, starting point of one of China's routes south-north water transfer to the parched northern regions. The reporter found that large villages usually had a couple of families engaged in pork trade, and most pigs were butchered by farmers and vendors.

Examining freshly-slaughtered swine carcasses for sale in village markets, the Consumer Daily reporter found that expedience and tradition overrules regulatory requirements in the countryside. The reporter did not see the blue ink stamps required to prove the animals passed disease and sanitary inspections at an officially-sanctioned slaughterhouse. 

When queried about the lack of official stamps, a vendor explained that consumers judge the safety of pork based on its appearance: white and shiny meat is safe to eat while dark, while red meat is likely diseased. The vendor explained further that pork sold in this village comes from local farmers, so there is no need to worry that it comes from diseased animals. Each meat counter had a line of buyers at 8am, apparently undeterred by the lack of official stamps.

The reporter asked the vendor why the pigs are not slaughtered in a centralized facility. The vendor said that local consumers like their pork freshly slaughtered, so farmers and dealers kill and butcher the pigs themselves. Hauling them to the central slaughterhouse would take more than half a day--including the required 12 hours for pigs to wait for slaughter at the facility without eating or drinking--plus another half day to transport the pork to the village market. Local people prefer hot meat that has just been slaughtered, not chilled meat. The vendor said he would have to raise prices and would lose money if he incurred the extra costs of trucking pigs to the county town.

The Consumer Daily reporter learned that individuals slaughtering a few hogs for their own consumption need not obtain the inspection stamps, but the inspections are required for those who routinely sell pork in the market. The village pork vendor assured the reporter that the county bureau sends inspectors, but they agreed not to stamp the meat because consumers complain that the ink doesn't wash off. 

Official stamps on a pork carcass. Source: Consumer Daily.

The villages are not self-contained markets. The region is prosperous, and the county town is just a 20-minute motorbike ride away from the villages the reporter visited. The reporter learned that the number of families raising pigs has been shrinking rapidly, and the villages have considerable demand for pork from outside their community. 

The reporter claimed that trade in diseased pigs is rampant in the county town of Xichuan. Regulation is stricter in adjoining areas, so many dealers bring diseased or dead animals to Xichuan to be surreptitiously butchered. They arrive at 4 am under cover of darkness to sell diseased animals at a discount price to vendors they know well. Supposedly this trade has been reported by the public. A local document issued last December ordered a crackdown, published a hot line to call, and set penalties for illegal slaughter, but the trade is difficult to regulate. No vendors could recall anyone being fined for illegal slaughter.

Killing a pig. Source: Consumer Daily.

The reporter visited one of the two mechanized "designated slaughterhouses" in the county town and found it was barely operational. Only one employee was sweeping the floor and there were no pigs in sight. The facility reportedly processes 200 animals daily during the peak spring festival season, but was processing no more than 10 per day in August--"barely enough to pay the electric bill." No "backyard" farmers send their pigs to be slaughtered here. 

Meat regulation is split among three departments. The agriculture and rural department is responsible for farming and slaughter, the market supervision bureau is responsible for meat in markets, and only the police have authority to make arrests. 

Strict food safety regulation has been slowly filtering down from ports and "demonstration areas," to big cities and processing plants, to medium cities, and gradually to the countryside. Rural food safety was one of nine prongs of a state council food safety campaign launched in 2014, and a 3-month campaign focusing specifically on rural food fraud was launched in December 2018. The appearance of this article in communist party-run news media shows that this remains a concern for Chinese leaders. The Consumer Daily article also points out that lax regulation is a threat in the spread of animal diseases that can infect humans.

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