Thursday, March 6, 2003 -- CropChoice news: Inside
a flashy new Carrefour supermarket, a group of sales clerks
are evoking the sounds, if not the sights and smells, of China's
traditional open-air food markets, hawking meat and fish to
"Come on. Take a look!" a clerk in a neat blue-and-white
apron shouts, offering squid and prawn. "The price is
even lower today."
But the giant supermarkets that are slowly coming to dominate
the biggest cities in China are hardly traditional. Much of
the meat and fish at Carrefour, a giant retailer based in
Paris, is displayed in glass cases or wrapped in plastic.
To attract shoppers last week, the store piped Western pop
music into the streets and hired a troupe of dancers to perform
in slinky golden dresses.
The losers in this modernization push are the city's old
"wet markets" — bustling, chaotic food bazaars
that truck in fresh vegetables and live animals every morning
for people to buy and cook later in the day.
As a growing number of urban dwellers with refrigerators
and microwaves flock to giant modern supermarkets, experts
see the beginnings of what could be a food revolution in China.
With supermarkets come new food systems, supply chains, food
safety regulations and national brands, like Long Feng, a
line of frozen foods.
Ultimately, the rise of a modern food distribution system
is changing the Chinese diet, as people consume more processed
foods and products like milk that the new food industry is
delivering to store shelves.
"There's a big impact on farmers and consumers,"
said Thomas Reardon, a professor at Michigan State University
who has studied the growth of supermarkets in China. "This
will reshape the whole food economy."
Much of China still buys its daily food supplies at wet markets
like the Yuping market in the Changning district of Shanghai,
not far from the Carrefour market. There one day last week,
Ke Guo Bin, a 32-year-old butcher, proudly displayed his wares:
two freshly chopped pig's ears, a pig's tongue, three snouts,
one tail and an assortment of other tender cuts from the hog.
"This is all very fresh," Mr. Ke said, sharpening
the blade of his knife to butcher-to-order for customers who
have just stopped by his booth. "That's why people come
The traditional markets retain their appeal for the many
Chinese who still prefer fresh foods like carrots, eggplant,
celery, jellyfish, squid and the live turtles, eels, frogs,
chickens, ducks and pigeons over packaged or frozen goods.
But not many expect markets like Yuping to survive for long
in the face of stores like Carrefour or the giant Hymart supermarket
at the base of a sports stadium a few blocks west of Mr. Ke's
stall. Stadiumlike itself, the Hymart has 18 checkout lanes,
dozens of lockers for customers to store shopping bags and
aisles the length of a football field.
"The wet markets in the cities are in decline,"
said Scott Sindler, who works for the United States Agriculture
Department office in Shanghai. "What you're seeing is
a real explosion in the retail sector, like what we have in
Carrefour, Wal-Mart and the Lotus chain of supermarkets,
the last owned by a Thai conglomerate, Charoen Pokphand Foods,
are expanding rapidly in urban China. Altogether, there are
already over 1,000 supermarkets in Shanghai, a metropolitan
area of 13 million, and young people and an emerging Chinese
middle class are streaming to their aisles and aisles of candy,
boxed goods, instant noodles, milk and imported products like
Coca-Cola and Danone yogurt.
Visits to three big supermarkets in Shanghai suggest that
older people, too, find them appealing. He Wenying, 55, shops
at the Carrefour here for the same reason that Americans and
other Westerners frequent shopping malls and supermarkets
— convenience. "I come here more than 10 times
a month," she says, holding the hand of her grandson,
who stared at a package of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum near
the bottom of her cart. "You can get everything here.
And you can do all your shopping at once."
Others think that at least a few traditional markets will
survive for some time, because the supermarkets rarely carry
live fish and animals. Local people like to see the crayfish
swimming in tubs of water, the crabs snapping their claws
and the turtles ducking in and out of their shells, a sign
that dinner could not be any fresher.
And in a country where it is common in restaurants for a
waiter to stop by the table with a live, flopping fish minutes
before it goes into the skillet, there are many people who
will not easily give up the chance to hand-select the soon-to-be
slaughtered or fried.
Customers also like to bargain, even over already low prices
like those at Yuping, where well-fed chickens go for about
$3 a head and a small pigeon can be yours for just $1.75.
You can't beat that at Wal-Mart.
One thing that could accelerate the demise of wet markets
is anxiety over food safety. A series of widely publicized
food-poisoning outbreaks in China in recent years has hurt
neighborhood markets because of the perception that they are
Vendors at Yuping, most from the countryside, are annoyed
at the suggestion that they are to blame. "People have
the perception that the big supermarket chains are managed
by the government and the food is safer, but it's the same
meat — the very same meat," said Sun Yu Jun, a
23-year-old butcher at Yuping. "We are very clean."
The wet markets are supposed to abide by government sanitary
standards, and one evening last week, men could be seen scrubbing
and hosing down their booths.
But nearby, two other men were spitting in the vicinity of
fresh meat, which often hangs unprotected in the open-air
markets. Some meat hangs exposed in supermarkets, too, but
a large share of supermarket meat is packaged and refrigerated.
In conversations at Yuping last week, some vendors said they
expected to make the transition to working in supermarkets.
Others said that they were not prepared to leave behind a
world of fresh-bludgeoned fish, and they worried about no
longer being able to let the entire family hang out in the
butcher's booth during the day — quite a common habit.
"The supermarkets are selling everything, and eventually
they'll take over places like this," said Mr. Ke, the
butcher, taking a drag from a cigarette.
And what will he do if that happens?
His answer came quickly and acidly. "I'll just go back
home and plow the land again," Mr. Ke said.