Concern over food safety in Beijing

One of my greatest concerns about living in Beijing is food safety.

The worry is not limited to cooked food served by hawkers and restaurants, but also the food products available in the market.

A few people - both locals and expats - have advised me to be cautious when eating out.

While the general rule of avoiding roadside stalls and dining at reputable eateries applies, how can we tell if the restaurants use safe ingredients and not gutter oil (reprocessed waste oil)?

A few days ago, I walked past a makeshift food stall located at the side of a commercial building which offered economy rice meals for the lunch crowd. A passer-by was overheard telling her companion: "Let's not buy here. You never know where the food comes from."

In this country where food scandals are unearthed every now and then, people have every reason to question the quality of the food they consume.

Tainted baby formula, fake eggs, fake honey, rat meat being sold as mutton and the recent case of 46-year-old chicken feet that made shocking headlines all over the world leave a bad impression on consumers.

Where is the conscience of the culprits?

Until today, many parents still prefer to buy imported baby milk powder for their children.

Some consumers even resort to inspecting their food with food safety tests, according to a report by BBC.

A Beijing-based company offers a variety of test kits for food products, including milk, water, fruits and vegetables, oil, honey, meat and others.

The kits are said to be able to detect the presence of substances like melamine in milk, pesticide in farm produce, residual chlorine in water and clenbuterol, a growth promoting chemical found in meat.

Then there is also the option of choosing certified organic products, which come with a label that differentiate them from their counterparts on the shelves in the supermarkets.

In Beijing, a group of expats and artists took matters into their own hands by setting up the Beijing Farmers' Market in September 2010.

They began by inviting small organic farms with a long-standing history in Beijing to participate.

From slightly more than a hundred visitors, the market (also known as "Country Fair") now beckons several thousand ardent followers.

Held at different locations every Saturday and Sunday, it provides the platform for consumers and producers who grow organically to meet directly.

Fruits, vegetables, poultry, milk, meat, rice wine, artisan food like French-styled cheese made with local milk, sustainable products and handicrafts are offered by 30 farmers and vendors.

Beijing Farmers' Market coordinator Chang Tianle said most of the farmers at the market were not organic certified.

One of the reasons that put them off is the high cost."A news report said 15 percent of the price you pay for an organic product goes to the certification.

"Farmers with bigger farms want to be certified organic because they are required to, if they want to sell their products in supermarkets.

"Also, they do not have close contact with consumers, so they need the certification to build the trust," she said.

Chang added that the farms need to have each of their crops certified organic, which is not financially viable for small family farms.

"In addition, the public trust in the organic certification is low in China. Even if a farm pays the high price, it doesn't necessarily get the trust it is supposed to get.

"Therefore, sometimes it is a business decision for the farmers not to get certified. They don't find it worthwhile to spend so much and get so little in return," Chang opined.

The foundation of the relationship between the farmers, consumers and market organiser is built on trust.

"The customers get to know the farmers directly through the market and some have also visited their farms. Therefore, the farmers do not need someone else to tell the customers that they can be trusted," Chang said.

While the customers shop at the Beijing Farmers' Market for food safety reasons, Chang said the market is also fuelled by the belief that organic agriculture is more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

By supporting local growers, consumers are also reducing food mileage.

"The produce also tastes better as they are fresh and ripe.

"The products themselves speak of their own quality," she said.

Chang added that similar markets are available in other parts of China as well, including in Shanghai, Tianjin, Xi'an, Chengdu and Sichuan.