August 28, 2012
Navigating the complicated (and sometimes deadly) world of eating in China
Eating is no simple feat in China, thanks to near constant food safety scandals. Last week, for instance, a sales manager at Mengniu (one of the country’s largest dairy producers) was arrested for altering production dates on 5,000 products, thus artificially extending their shelf life by five months. This incident is tame for China, where food safety issues like toxic additives and fake foods sometimes have deadly consequences.
China’s State Food and Drug Administration is charged with monitoring food safety, but with responsibility scattered across a number of agencies, safety breaches often slip between the cracks, according to the Associated Press. So consumers and brands are stepping in to provide a safety net. The China Survival Guide iPhone app, developed by Kingsoft Internet Security Software, provides daily updates of food safety violations. The app became the top free download in the Chinese iTunes store three days after it launched in May. The firm hopes it will “wake up people’s consciousness to the need to fight for food safety,” a representative told the AP. On the consumer front, “Throw it out the window” is an online database of some 3,000 articles related to food safety, allowing visitors to see which regions have been affected by a safety breach. The brainchild of a 26-year-old Shanghai grad student, the site has proved so popular that it crashed earlier this year after being overwhelmed by traffic, and has even been praised by officials—no small feat in a country with low tolerance for muckraking and civic activism. (Though government officials are taking steps forward: In Shanghai, the local government has set up a food safety report hotline. Tips may be rewarded with as much as RMB 200,000 (nearly $32,000).
While these services provide some relief for consumers, however, there’s a long way to go, since they often rely on reports from state-run media outlets. Fearful and angry, consumers are voting with their wallets, opting for international over domestic brands. In a recent survey conducted by Ipsos, 61 percent of Chinese consumers said their trust levels in Chinese food brands had declined in the last 12 months and 28 percent said they would buy more overseas food brands. Perhaps as Chinese consumers move up the value chain, smart brand managers in China will recognize that building brand equity is dependent on addressing safety issues.
For more on China, see our latest trend report, “Remaking ‘Made in China’.”
Image credit: Rudy Herman