A friend sent me a note the other day about our recent food issues and it came up again in class today. The context was somewhat different as my teacher used the global frenzy for milk powder to illustrate China’s rising spending power, along with the fast one the matriarchs of China pulled on the gold shorters over the May holidays. The Chinese consumer has the ability to spend where she wants to.
Five years after tainted milk first hit the headlines in China, HK airport is playing regular public broadcasts about the two tin export limit and the global infant formula market is in disarray. It still amazes me that in an industry where consumer confidence and quality assurance is paramount a brand like Mengniu, implicated in the scandal along with its peers, still exists. Moreover if the valuation is anything to go by foreign investors still love it for its market potential. This even as their valuable mainland customers remember with bitterness management’s reassurance to the HK market that product sold there was not the same shoddy quality as that sold up here. As if the mainland consumer can’t understand Chinese.
The issue of export quality versus local goods is not particular to China. The Australians for example keep all their best stuff for their home market (certainly hope that’s true of their wine, as they claim). The South Africans definitely don’t let their best wine go offshore. The Chinese however keep second rate goods for the home market and save the best for everyone else. In the days of restricted product choice exports in oversupply sold back into the domestic market were known to be better than local market items; “export turned import” stickers were considered to be a mark of quality.
This week’s scandal involves ginger which has been stimulated with fertiliser that pumps up the tuber like it’s on steroids but unfortunately leaves poisonous traces. That’s the stuff for us. You needn’t worry if you’re buying ginger from China as the farmers themselves have been applying quality control: toxic ginger gets piled up for domestic sale and innocuous ginger goes abroad.
Consumers are peeved. Comments on Weibo vary from “are our lives worth less?” to “who is supposed to be in charge of this?” My friends say sotto voce I am lucky to be able to come and go at will and I shouldn’t consider staying long term. Those with children are relieved if their offspring can find jobs with foreign companies that might get them out. If you’re not growing your own food you have no idea what is in it, so everyone just chows on with something that seems like apathy but is really impotence. I suspect that also explains why Mengniu hasn’t disappeared into a crater: there is still a big enough market of people who have no alternative to cheaper domestic goods.
We now cannot eat pork, duck, chicken or ginger. The last of those even makes a vegetarian diet challenging since ginger goes into pretty much everything. As you know however rat, fox and mink are all available. I had a pie on my way home from a night out last week. It was a “meat gravy pie”. It was quite yummy but it tasted like nothing from the animal kingdom I’d eaten before. I might be sticking to instant noodles and fruit for a while.