Farmers Markets with Chinese Characteristics

05/10/2015 02:36 am ET | Updated May 09, 2016

Marin Toscano explores the food industry in China: its world-famous corporations, farmers' markets, individual food vendors, and related food safety issues.

In the face of drastic food scandals like exploding watermelons pumped with growth stimulants and glow-in-the-dark pork contaminated by phosphorescent bacteria, finding a place to buy safe and healthy food is a source of mounting tension and confusion for Chinese consumers.

Farmers' markets, while now gaining popularity and considered 'progressive' in the US, are commonplace in China and are increasingly viewed as problematic and 'backward.' There is a growing attitude among the middle class that traveling food vendors and street-side vegetable and fruit stands make neighborhoods look luan--disorganized and unkempt--and may contribute to food safety scandals, prompting local officials to enforce what has been a very laissez faire law requiring food vendors to get licensed and pay fees to sell food. While this may be successful in making the streets look 'cleaner,' it is unclear if limiting who can sell food, and when and where they can sell it will be truly effective at improving food safety.

Chinese consumers hold varying perceptions about food safety in relation to different methods of food distribution, and many struggle as they try to decipher if Western-style supermarkets are addressing food safety atrocities with improved hygienic and regulatory standards, or if food safety scandals are merely being repackaged.

While the quest for safe and healthy food becomes more and more complex, frustrated consumers turn to factors like convenience and presentation to make their purchasing decisions. When pressed about their food shopping preferences in relation to food safety and quality, many consumers interviewed in Beijing and Kunming admitted that they do not see a significant difference between shopping at supermarkets versus farmers' markets. They noted that no matter where they go, the food is coming from the same wholesale markets, which are sourcing from the same pool of large-scale and often unregulated farms.

Supermarkets came to China's top tier cities in 1990, selling an image of modernity and Western convenience. Since then, foreign chains like Wal-Mart and Carrefour, as well as Chinese-born supermarkets, have spread rapidly across China's cities and suburban areas, resulting in over 50,000 supermarkets in less than three decades. At first, supermarkets specialized in imported food products and packaged, processed foods that were marketed predominantly to China's rising middle class. Over the last decade, however, supermarkets have made distinct efforts to increase fresh produce and meat sales.

In recent years, it is becoming apparent that supermarkets are not immune to the food safety challenges in China. Carrefour invested ¥5 million to operate a food safety test lab in hopes of eliminating food scandals. Despite these efforts, some mislabeled and expired products reached the shelves of certain Carrefour branches. In one case, Carrefour was accused of carrying a processed beef product that when tested was found to consist of several kinds of meat, including pork and lamb, but no actual beef. In another scandal, Carrefour was exposed in deliberately mislabeling conventionally produced chicken as free-range and charging a higher price. As similar scandals accumulate in the awareness of Chinese consumers, their trust for supermarket chains and brands that strive to promote transparency waivers.

The expansion of supermarkets is changing the way that Chinese people shop, prepare and eat food, and will undoubtedly impact food culture, dietary nutrition and overall health. Mrs. Wang, who grew up in Beijing, but has lived in the US for the last ten years, noticed how her shopping habits changed without access to farmers' markets: "In China, I would walk almost every day to fresh markets, [but] now I have to drive to the supermarket, and I only go once a week... [also] many Chinese are concerned that the food in supermarkets is only restocked once a week."

Younger generations in China are experiencing a similar transition as their work lives become more demanding. They often rely on their elderly parents to go to outdoor morning markets where food is the cheapest and to shop and cook for the family daily. However, those who don't live with their parents gravitate towards supermarkets for convenience. Shopping at supermarkets means consumers are sacrificing what has traditionally been highly valued by Chinese people: freshness.

Farmers' markets, or wet markets in China are not exactly the same as the trendy farmers' markets in the US that sell heirloom tomatoes and support local farmers. Today, especially in China's urban areas, it is very rare that the vendors at farmers' markets are involved with growing the produce they sell. Vendors are often rural emigrants who at some point may have farmed in their hometowns, but now wake up every morning at three to commute to wholesale markets, where they rush to select the best produce for the best price. There are still occasional 'grandmas' who come down from the countryside and sell a few surplus vegetables or eggs from baskets they carry on their backs, but they are unable to afford licenses for selling food. Farmers offering 'farm-to-street' produce are few and far between in modern-day Chinese cities.

Farmers' markets are still viewed by most Chinese consumers as superior in terms of freshness, flavor, diversity, price, and accessibility, but when it comes to safety, supermarkets and farmers' markets both lack transparency.

There is persistent demand from Chinese citizens that the food system become more standardized so that product quality and origin are transparent to the consumer. Concerned Chinese citizens and policymakers often refer to the Federal Drug Administration as an ideal regulatory body to emulate, but there are obstacles to applying such a system in China, and it can be argued the FDA has its own unresolved problems in regards to food safety and quality.

Implementing effective safety inspections at food production farms and factories has proven especially challenging in China. As is often the case in China's top-down political system, central policy mandating increased food safety inspections is corrupted at the local level, where agricultural businesses that can afford to pay bribes, pass inspections and even buy organic certifications outright, regardless of actual production practices. Perhaps a 'crackdown' on unregulated food distribution in the city attempts to placate consumers by superficially displaying a more regulated system, while actual food safety standards at the production level remain inadequate.

Several residents in Beijing and Kunming think the "messy, chaotic and unregulated" nature of farmers' markets epitomizes food safety problems, but others are not so sure that better labels and packaging can ensure safer food. Most consumers noted that they prefer to buy dried goods, oil, and processed foods at supermarkets, believing these are more trustworthy, but still prefer to go to farmers' markets to buy fresh produce. Consumer perceptions regarding where to buy the highest quality meat and fish are still inconsistent. Some interviewees thought meat sold at farmers' markets is "safer" because it is slaughtered on the day of sale and therefore "fresher," while others think supermarkets are more "hygienic" because they keep their meats refrigerated.

Consumers interviewed in Beijing noted that they shop at supermarkets not based on the hopeful illusion that products are safer, but rather because they prefer buying food in large, well-lit indoor stores, which they feel provide a more "hygienic, organized, and modern" shopping environment.

Jared Schy, an independent researcher studying sustainable agriculture in Yunnan, muses, "these are the same words you might use to describe something that is lifeless and barren; traditionally, food has been sold in a way that does not try to hide its origin from nature and its journey through human hands. Supermarkets distance food from the combined natural and human elements it takes to produce it, thereby making food production chains more complex and elusive to the consumer."

Chinese consumers seem to be at a crossroads: there is debate over whether a large corporation, like Carrefour, can be trusted to source safe food just because they have a reputation to protect, or whether small-scale producers and vendors might use better practices because they are not operating at an industrial scale. The spectrum of consumer opinion varies greatly: some are content to pay exorbitant prices for food labeled as organic, while others think the only way to truly know if your food is safe is to grow it yourself or get surplus from friends and family in remote villages where they know the locals do not use chemicals.

It would be a shame if farmers' markets become the scapegoat amid the panic to address the dramatic food safety issues rampant in China. Food scandals have been linked to both world-famous corporations and small-scale vendors, making it difficult to say whether one form of distribution is more conducive to selling safe food than the other. If traditional forms of food distribution are traded for the system used in the US, where supermarkets dominate and the small-scale growers and vendors are left with no support from the food industry, China may find itself trading one set of problems for another.

Food access issues reminiscent of 'food deserts' in the US could be an unforeseen consequence of tackling the wrong link of the food chain in a desperate frenzy to combat food safety issues. Much like in the US, high-quality supermarkets with fresh produce will likely operate exclusively in high-income neighborhoods, making low-income communities more susceptible to food safety issues.

China's infatuation with the American food system is based on the perceived ideals of transparency and regulation. Perhaps it would be more beneficial if China focused on progressive trends in the US that aim to promote improved food safety and quality: farmers' markets selling fresh and healthy local meat and produce. China may actually have a head start in this regard: farmers' markets and vendors are already in abundance and food supply chains are more regional or localized relative to the US.

For a revival of China's farmers' markets to take place, there would need to be a significant rise in incentives and support for small-scale farmers to produce safe and healthy food, as well as the development of a regulatory system that provides incentives for food producers to comply with safety standards. Chinese consumers will need to be persistent in demanding food that is both safe and healthy. Otherwise, China's food system is likely to continue experiencing safety issues and confront rising health challenges.

Farmers' Markets with Chinese characteristics have been both a victim of and contributor to food safety issues, but they hold the potential to become part of the solution.

Marin Toscano is a graduate of University of Colorado at Boulder. Contact her at

This article also appears in China Hands.