China Consumer

Trusted sources

Worried by food safety, Beijing housewives team up with organic farms

Trusted sources

Making a pig of food safety

“They only want pigs fed with the drug,” a farmer complained to the Shanghai Daily recently, “because their pork products are more popular.”

The drug in question is clenbuterol, an illegal additive that helps pigs put on muscle. There have already been 30 arrests, including three senior officials from the Animal Husbandry Bureau, in relation to the clenbuterol crisis. Supermarkets across the country are now recalling meat produced by food processing giant Shuanghui.

Another week, another food scare. Not that everyone needs to panic – the UK’s Sunday Times reported three years ago that senior Communist Party apparatchiks get their own produce from special farms dedicated to feeding top officials. A lot less chance of dodgy stimulants beefing up their bacon, no doubt.

But the elite is no longer alone in its quest for culinary quality. A group of ordinary housewives in Beijing is trying to pull off something similar.

The Housewives’ Organic Produce Purchasing Group is a form of cooperative formed by mothers in the Beijing suburb of Huilongguan. They have been sourcing their own organic produce from nearby farms for nearly a year. The idea is that if they combine their purchasing power, they can get a decent variety of healthy food at affordable prices.

“We are willing to pay a premium for our health,” one of its members told the Southern Metropolis Weekly magazine. “Purchasing organic food as a group saves a lot of effort and leads to more choices.”

The group talks directly with farmers. The members place their orders, and deliveries are made once a week to an apartment in the neighbourhood.

The project was first conceived three years ago at a book club, when the melamine-tainted milk scandal became major news. Two friends Yao Fei and Liu Yujing were inspired to rent a parcel of land and farm it themselves. Initially, the attempt fell flat, when a neighbouring farmer contaminated their crop with chemical pesticide.

But then Yao visited Dondon farm, a community-supported agriculture project in north Beijing. “At that time Dondon Farm did not have a lot of members and their prices were high,” she told the magazine, “so we started negotiations, hoping to lower prices and benefit more families.”

The housewives’ purchasing group was born.

Getting organic food that’s affordable has required the group to be flexible. “We need to promote an organic lifestyle, so that more people join in,” explains Yao, “otherwise it is difficult for these organic farms to survive.”

That includes accepting produce from farms not always certified as organic (most small operators can’t afford the certification process). Instead, they build close relationships with their farms, asking farmers to indicate where they have used pesticides, and communicating this to their members

The organic food sector in China still faces many obstacles, like wrangling over certification processes and the higher price of organically-produced food (some locals nickname their organic beans and lettuce the “Louis Vuittons” of the vegetable world).

Still, WiC has written previously about the commercial efforts of those seeking to cash in on the trend (Tony’s Farm in WiC93, and Deqingyuan’s eggs in WiC12).

And with each successive food scandal, the type of (semi) organic effort pioneered by the ‘Huilongguan housewives’ is going to gain a little more traction.

“It’s not only mothers, but young couples and single people are also joining our organic produce purchasing group,” says Liu.

Keeping Track: Food safety issues have featured prominently in WiC over th e past two weeks, particularly the concerns about pork tainted with ‘lean meat powder’–  clenbuterol. Now Chinese  shopper s disillusioned with their pork suppliers and the government regulators are trying to take matters into their own hands. Sales of clenbuterol detection tests’ are soaring on (they cost a round $150 each). That’s despite experts’ warnings that those without the proper equipment won’t get accurate results.(8 April 2011)

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