China Food Exports Plunge on Quality Concerns

China product quality

While in Qingdao the other day, I went out for a sushi dinner with co-blogger Steve Dickinson and a long time Japanese fishing industry client who happened to be in Qingdao on business.

Steve had been to this same restaurant a few months earlier and raved about the food. The first few dishes were excellent, but the sushi platter contained tuna that looked and tasted old and awful. Steve informed our waiter of this he merely shrugged. That got the three of us talking about China food quality, and at that point, Steve (who can speak and read Japanese) and the client told me that the topic of the day in Japanese magazines is “poisoned food” coming in from China. They both said that many of these articles accuse the Chinese of deliberately poisoning food going to Japan. I failed to ask if this “deliberate” poisoning was being done to save money and increase profits, or to get at the Japanese. They both said Japan was making every effort to cease buying any food from China.

The AP is just out with a story saying food sales from China to Japan fell 30 percent in February and from Shandong Province the fall was an even steeper 60 percent. These figures are in comparison to February, 2007. Based on my dinnertime conversation, it would not surprise me if sales have fallen even further since February.

Will China’s food sales to Japan recover or will this plunge spread to Korea and beyond? In other words, is this just a Japanese thing? Does China’s increasing carelessness with food portend bad things in terms of Chinese product manufacturing and quality control?

5 responses to “China Food Exports Plunge on Quality Concerns”

  1. My impression is that very few non-crackpots here seriously believe that “the Chinese” (as a nation) are “deliberately poisoning food going to Japan”, and certainly no-one who was not already suspicious of China in general.
    It is true that the issue of Chinese-produced food safety is commonly known as the “posioned gyoza problem” (毒入り餃子問題) due to a sensational case where several people fell ill after eating gyoza (dumplings) produced in China which were later found to contain pesticides, but Japanese and Chinese authorities were unable to agree on where and how the pesticides were introduced (Japan says China, China says Japan), and ultimately the serious discussion came to focus on perceived low health standards and unsafe cost-cutting in Chinese factories, rather than some fantasy of deliberate, Chinese-government-approved international malice.
    Nowadays, I think the “poisoned gyoza problem” is understood as one example of a more general danger to Japan’s food supply. You may have heard of the butter shortage going on right now, and just the other day a respected Japanese restaurant was found to be reusing food (if one diner did not touch the food they were served, and it came back intact to the kitchen, they would re-serve it to another diner). A lot of little things that, combined with the news about shortages of staples around the world, have left Japanese consumers feeling very uneasy about food sources they used to take for granted. Buying local lets people feel that they have taken control again to some extent. It also ties in with the “slow food”/”LOHAS” movements which are gradually becoming more popular here.

  2. There was that kimchi scare in Korea in 2005-2006. Some bacteria/parasites/toxins or whatever was found in imported kimchi. My Korean classmates at the time in Beijing had their parents calling them to make sure they didn’t eat any kimchi that wasn’t imported from Korea. If I remember correctly, at that time the Chinese fought right back by saying food imported from Korea was unclean much in the same way they did when the US complained about quality issues in their Chinese imports.
    There are always issues like this that can be hyped up. A relationship like that between Japan and China makes it easier to do so in the media.
    By the way, if my maguro is opaque instead of that beautiful red color, I generally stay clear.

  3. Dan,
    I’m with you about staying clear of opaque (and stringy looking) maguro, but when I see that, I want to stay clear of everything else on the table also.

  4. Sorry to be late to the party, but how much of this is self-imposed? By which I mean USDA Tokyo is reporting that export approval in Dalian is “nearly impossible” to obtain, that Qingdao has a huge backlog of exports, and Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong are also imposing severe restrictions on food exports. I’ve also heard anecdotal claims that other provinces, inland and costal, are clamping down on food exports to avoid PR problems in the run-up to the Olympics. It seems like a severe measure, but then so does deporting foreign students and shutting down factories.

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