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Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Healthy foods elude in China economic boom

Staff writer

Despite its booming economy and increasing global presence, China has yet to shed its image as a land where when it comes to food, consumer beware.

Food-related scares, including poisonings, in recent years have created a crisis of confidence among Chinese consumers, a major example being the 2008 milk poisonings, in which an estimated 30,000 people fell victim to tainted milk and infant formula laced with melamine.

To improve food safety and to establish trust between producers and consumers, a group of Chinese academics from the nongovernment Fuping Development Institute recently traveled to Japan to visit Daichi wo Mamoru Kai, the nation's largest organic food distributor, to share knowledge for a joint venture it hopes to launch next year.

The two organizations aim to collaborate to create an organic food distribution service in Beijing as early as next fall, using knowhow that Daichi, a pioneer in the field, has accumulated over the past 36 years.

Mao Yushi, founding chairman of the Chinese institute, said that while there is a market for organic food in China, it still remains small and poorly regulated.

"Because of the big gap between the rich and the poor in China, the richest 1 percent that is in power is almost larger than the richest 10 percent in Japan," Mao said during an interview with The Japan Times earlier this month.

"And their consumption is very high, from luxury cars to fashion brand products. And their concern is their health, so they like to have organic produce," he said.

But Mao, a nationally renowned economist who established the institute in 2002 as a means to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development, said products are not strictly managed and there is a lack of concrete safety guidelines.

"So Daichi, they have more than 30 years' experience in conducting these kinds of projects, so it is a very good example for us. We came here to learn," he said.

Tang Min, another visiting academic and a cochairman of the institute, said organic products in China mainly face two problems: a lack of trust from consumers and high prices.

Tang recounted a story he heard from a farmer in China who said he kept a small piece of land for his family that was free of fertilizers and other chemicals. The rest of the land was for growing produce for average consumers.

"You see, these rural farmers, they know that all the fertilizers and chemicals are not so good for health," he said.

And with food-poisoning scandals making headlines in recent years, Tang said Chinese worry a great deal about whether the food they eat is safe. But with so many farmers and companies boasting of being "organic," consumers can't tell which claims are legitimate.

Availability and price are other factors keeping consumers away from organic produce.

Tang, a former researcher at the Asian Development Bank, said organic produce can only be found in large, urban supermarkets, and usually costs three to five times more than regular produce.

"And you have to eat organic food regularly to enjoy its health effects," he said.

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