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China Food Smuggling Yields “Zombie Meat” (and Outrage)

The latest from China’s seemingly endless parade of news reports on fake and tainted foods has meat smuggling taking center stage. With steep import duties, the market price for quality meat is on average 50% more than that on the black market. This price gap, along with China’s increasing demand for meat and rising domestic prices, has resulted in booming business for smugglers.

It seems that any meat will do, even some that is (wait for it) 40 years old, in order to keep up with demand. Based on their labels, most of these products (chicken wings, drumsticks, and beef) originated from the United States and Brazil, but the how and the why such old meat ended up at China’s borders remains largely unknown. Some state the most likely reasons are that it is expired and so was obtained illicitly at deep discounts or, as the Asahi Shimbun reports,“they may have come from meat stocked for times of war.”

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Old or not, through the smuggling process, a lot of the meat ends up thawing out, getting refrozen, thawing again, and so on, before making its way to processors or workshops, who then go on to sell the meat to vendors.

Recent efforts to crack down on meat smuggling were highlighted last month amid reports of huge so-called “zombie meat” busts in various provinces around China. One such case in Hunan Province saw 800 tons seized. While some was still frozen, much had thawed and was already rotting (thus the “zombie” moniker). Chicken feet, a widely enjoyed snack throughout China, were also found among the tons of old meat in the giant storage container on site. The value of this bust is reported at approximately 10 million yuan (US$1.6 million).

These scandals have gained attention nationwide, with Chinese netizens even coining the name “jiangshi fengzhao” (“zombie chicken feet”) in their outrage and fear of ending up eating these aged delectables. Social media sites have seen thousands of comments and discussions on the topic. Naturally, many are more wary than ever about where they buy their meats these days.

After ongoing raids throughout China this year, the focus is now on controlling the flow of black market meat into the mainland from borders at Hong Kong and Vietnam, where some are still going to great lengths to profit from this trade.

“To save costs, smugglers often hire ordinary vehicles instead of refrigerated ones, so the meat has often thawed out several times before reaching customers,” Yang Bo, deputy director of an anti-smuggling bureau, told China Daily.

In June, approximately 110,000 tons of meat were seized from numerous smuggling operations and at checkpoints. And yet, there are still unknown amounts inevitably making its way into China from various locations. At the Vietnam border, some resort to bringing boxes of meat in piece by piece, unrefrigerated of course, at border towns such as China’s Dongxing and Vietnam’s Mong Cai.

“They then stick it onto 50 or so motorbikes ,which slowly drip it out along the border, where it’s carried on small sampan boats to a truck waiting on the other side,” said Scott Robertson, a conservationist based in Vietnam.

So when the meat arrives at secret warehouses, such as in the Hunan case, much of it has already started to rot and it’s anyone’s guess how much of the hauls such as this are already infested with dangerous bacteria. Customs officials report that smugglers often use hydrogen peroxide to soak the meat, thereby making it appear relatively fresh.

As on the Vietnam border, smugglers in Hong Kong have taken up similar tactics to get meat across the border despite increased crackdowns. Refrigerated trucks obviously won’t work so people are simply bringing it in on foot, hidden in their bags, using makeshift insulation with pieces of styrofoam.

According to Xinhua News, about 3 billion yuan (US$483 million) worth of meaty contraband was seized by the end of June, demonstrating again just how lucrative this trade is and how hard it will be to shut down.

With that in mind, the next time you’re in Dongxing, China, and want to munch on some chicken feet or snap up that pack of discount beef tenderloin at 50% off, you might want to reconsider. True, every wet market, food vendor, and supermarket is not automatically “suspect,” but a bit more scrutiny is clearly needed among officials and the masses alike.

H/T: Reuters

  • Maria Riley

    Maybe I’ll go vegetarian

    • Peter Zhang

      I hear ya. Pretty shocking how widespread the meat smuggling seems to be. I don’t think I can go veggie but I am going to be very careful where I get my meat!

  • Maria Riley

    Are there certain grocery stores and restaurants that are for the most part reputable and won’t sell bad meat? Or is everyday a gamble?

    • Peter Zhang

      Sure. Here in Nanjing, as well as most cities of notable size, there are some really nice “international” supermarkets, with quality meat etc. There are also some foreign stores such as Metro (like Costco). Also, being this far north of the main smuggling borders down south, chances of that meat making the journey are unlikely. Most reports mention meat being sold in the Guangxi, Guangdong and Hunan Provinces. That said, fake or tainted food products could end up anywhere so it takes more awareness/discipline about where you eat and shop!