Portion control

China’s leader calls for more efforts to curb food waste


Order less food, government says

Chuiyan Fried Beef, a restaurant chain in Changsha, has a radical approach to recommending its dishes to diners. Customers are first asked to weigh themselves. Women weighing less than 40kg are then recommended the chain’s signature beef dish, plus steamed fish head; men weighing above 80kg are steered towards the same beef dish, plus eggplant and braised pork belly. Inside the restaurant there are signs encouraging diners to “clear their plates” and “be frugal” too.

The rather unusual initiative, which left many confused, was meant to lend support to a campaign started by Xi Jinping to reduce food waste. According to Xinhua, the Chinese leader deems the current levels of uneaten (and subsequently wasted) restaurant food as “shocking and distressing”.

Xi even cited a Tang Dynasty poem as part of his advice, asking people to “know that each grain on your plate comes from the labour of peasants”.

Despite years of bumper harvests, people in China should not be so complacent about abundant food Xi says, noting that emergencies such as the coronavirus outbreak could disrupt supply. He has also emphasised the need to step up legislation to foster a culture of thrift.

In some quarters, the advice was interpreted as putting China on a ‘war footing’ – given escalating tensions with the US, Japan and India, as well as Taiwan (see this week’s “Cross Strait”). And sure enough, the high-level promulgation was soon triggering a wider reaction. For instance, a catering trade group in Wuhan immediately issued new guidelines for its restaurants. For diners it has been promoting the official so-called “N-1” approach to ordering, meaning that the number of dishes requested has to be fewer than the number of diners by one plate.

For the eateries themselves, it proposes half or smaller portion sizes as options on menus, as well as takeaway containers for customers who fail to finish their food.

In Changshu in Jiangsu province, the local government is deliberating whether to deploy “food waste supervisors” at restaurants and Chongqing is also developing a reporting system for evaluating official efforts to cut food waste.

Online video platforms such as Douyin, Douyu and Kuaishou have also tightened their reviews of food-related content and have even threatened to shut down accounts promoting overeating and food wastage. These changes followed a programme by state broadcaster CCTV that criticised the livestreaming of binge-eating and competitive eating shows.

It is not the first time that Xi has focused on food waste. In line with his anti-graft drive, Party members and government officials were told in 2013 that business banquets should be reduced to ‘four simple dishes and one soup’. Over that year catering expenditures at official feasts and receptions fall by 60%, and food waste reduced by 30%, state media suggested.

The new campaign has shifted the battlefield to households as growing prosperity and a budding consumer culture encourage more expansive eating. The phenomenon is showcased at weddings where hosts tend to show off their hospitality by ordering mountains of food. It is not uncommon to find empty tables piled high with multi-course meals when the number of guests has been overestimated too.

Research by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that the four biggest cities in China squandered as much as 18 million tonnes of food in 2015, a sum that would be sufficient to feed up to 50 million people a year. The report noted that urban diners in China wasted 11.7% of their meals in an average sitting.

Separately the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that the Chinese waste nearly 35 million tonnes of food a year, or around 6% of the country’s annual food production.

“The call comes as the country experiences a hike in grain prices,” Ma Wenfeng, senior analyst at Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consultant, told Bloomberg.

Corn prices in July were 20% higher than a year ago, suggesting a decline in output for the summer harvest. “There are concerns over supply,” Ma admitted.

The government claims that summer grain output has increased 0.9% on the year to a historic high of 142.8 million tonnes. But some analysts speculate that supply is tightening. One indicator is that the National Food and Strategic Reserve Administration is said to have purchased less wheat than a year ago, especially in Henan province, which was hard hit by the worst floods in decades.

Crops across thousands of acres of farmland along the Yangtze River, which account for 70% of China’s rice production, have been destroyed this summer by flooding too. Many farmers are hoarding their harvests in expectation that prices will rise due to lower supply, the South China Morning Post notes.

China already imports more than a fifth of the grain that it needs. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the globe, and China’s relations with some of the world’s bread-basket nations show signs of deteriorating, perhaps food security in the world’s most populous country is becoming more of a priority again.

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