What a Waste

September 04, 2010

I was in Chongqing. It was July. And it was very hot. Having asked to look at some of the city’s food export operations, officials compliantly led me into a factory in a drab suburb where hundreds of women spent their days handling pigs intestines. Literally millions of them. Sichuan slaughters over 300 million pigs a year, and the intestines from most of them ended up here.

With unsmiling efficiency, the intestines were flushed clean, wrapped into bundles of 12 intestines at a time, smothered in salt, and laid carefully in vast ceramic urns. Once full, each urn was trundled deep underground, to be stored until summer passed, and temperatures fell. At that point, the urns were raised back to the surface, put on boats down the Yangze to Wuhan, then on trains to Beijing. From Beijing they transferred to the long, slow train to Russia and into Europe. These urns of salted intestines provided sausage casings for a very large share of Europe’s sausages.

This visit was not just a fascinating glimpse into the extraordinary reach of China’s export economy. It was a marvelous case study of China’s “cold chain” at work. Primitive by comparison with the hundreds of thousands of refrigerated or temperature controlled lorries that take food from the farm to the supermarket in Europe and the US, but in this instance, apparently quite effective.

This was some years ago, but I believe not a lot has changed. Most of China’s food supplies travel to market exposed to the elements, draped with wet sacks. If they are lucky, they are smothered in a few bags of ice. Officials say just 1% of food products leaving China’s farms benefit from being part of the cold chain. China today has just 30-40,000 refrigerated or temperature-controlled trucks working along the country’s vast food supply chain. That compares with around 300,000 in the US, and about 120,000 in Japan. The price China pays for this low-tech approach to transporting food is food wastage and spoilage on a vast scale. China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has just released a report on food security, and for the first time released data on food wastage, and problems in their food supply chain. They say between 20-30% of fruit and vegetables grown on China’s farms are spoiled or wasted before they reach the table – about 68 million tonnes of fruit, and nearly 270 million tonnes of vegetables, costing the country about RMB 100 billion in fruit and vegetable losses every year. About 12% of meat products are wasted, and about 15% of fish products, the NDRC says.

Even though the numbers are almost certainly underestimates of the wastage at the heart of China’s food supply chain – one of the country’s leading food economists concludes in a recent study that around a half of the country’s food is wasted between farm and fork – the decision to release data at all – as they draft the 12th Five Year Plan to be introduced in 2011 – is a measure of how serious Beijing officials see the country’s food problem to be.

The problem is, of course, far bigger than just wastage. Spoiled food can make people sick, and the Government has had far too many reminders recently of how unhappy Chinese citizens get when spoiled food products sicken their families. As bad, officials have learned that large quantities of medicines, including vaccines, are ineffective because they have been “cooked” in transit to hospitals and clinics in vehicles lacking temperature-controls.

The problem has assumed growing importance as anxieties over food security have grown. As food consumption has risen in an increasingly affluent China, so the land available to grow food has been falling. Urbanisation is putting concrete where once there were farms. As food shortages, and food price volatility, have become more of a challenge worldwide, so the option simply to import food products in short supply is increasingly risky. As the country’s high speed national highway system has grown, so expectations have risen that foods can be transported very long distances, and for year-round consumption.

Of course, in some instances the primitive old methods continue to work modestly well. Meat transported across Heilongjiang in winter has no need of refrigeration when outside temperatures hover around -40 degrees C. The wintertime mountains of cabbage that have for decades cluttered Beijing street corners stand as testament that nature’s refrigeration can be very effective for many months a year.

But changing consumer habits are creating huge pressure for change. Over half of the country’s 20,000 cold storage warehouses are more than 30 years old. Even with good warehousing in place, the stock of refrigerated or temperature-controlled vehicles is woefully inadequate. With refrigerated trucks costing at least twice the cost of an ordinary truck, few farmers or transport companies have been anxious to burden themselves with such additional costs. But the introduction last year of a new Food Safety Law, and of 200 new cold chain standards, has created new pressures for change. If indeed between one third and a half of food products are wasted before they can be consumed, then the scope is huge for reducing pressure to convert new land to farming. And since China produces 48% of the world’s vegetables, and 30% of the world’s poultry and aquatic products, the ramifications for food security worldwide cannot be ignored.

This problem is critically important to Hong Kong people on at least two counts. First, so much of our fresh food comes to us from the Mainland that our wet markets and supermarkets are daily victims of this spoilage along the food chain. Retailers can only compensate for these losses by charging us more for the products still in good enough condition to sell. High food prices are directly linked to wastage. Second, Hong Kong relies almost entirely on imported food. We are hugely vulnerable to global shortages and food price volatility. Measures in China that reduce waste, and so improve food security, are critical for our own food security.

And what needs to be done? Some things are happening already. China’s new Food Safety Law is an important step in creating clear and transparent food transport and storage standards. More refrigerated trucks and new temperature-controlled warehousing are being built, and hopefully will become more widely used in the not too distant future, but there is a lot of evidence that the biggest improvements will come from effective chilling facilities at the farm-level. Tighter oversight of third party logistics companies would raise confidence in the cold chain. Wider use by supermarkets and retailers of their own refrigerated vehicles and food quality monitoring systems would help to reduce waste. It is also clear that there is less spoilage if the supply chain is short: obviously the further food has to travel, the greater the danger of loss. China’s 12th Five Year Plan will help us all by pointing a spotlight on a critically important, but long neglected problem.


* The translated Chinese version was published in Ming Pao on September 4, 2010.

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