Food safety fears contribute to rapid growth in organic products

Mainland approvals for healthier products has more than doubled over past four years

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 March, 2014, 1:54am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2014, 1:54am

Shanghai housewife Yang Huaixin began buying organic food from farms on the outskirts of the metropolis not long after a relative had a brush with cancer.

"It's an investment in one's health," said Yang, 36, who uses organically farmed vegetables and meat in soups and steamed buns for her husband and eight-year-old son. "I can't change my overall environment, but I can control what's around me."

Demand for organic food is surging in China as food-safety scandals and rising nutritional awareness drive health-conscious consumers to search out safer options. Like their counterparts in the US and Europe, Chinese increasingly are prepared to pay a premium for organic food.

Looking to meet the demand, farmers are ditching pesticides, while markets and stores devoted to naturally raised food are opening in cities across the country. Wal-Mart Stores and other global grocers are selling more organic merchandise.

"This is the first market I've worked in where food safety is a more important consideration than price," said Rob Chester, chief compliance officer at Wal-Mart in China.

Food and drug safety was voted as the third-biggest concern for ordinary Chinese this year, up from seventh place in 2013, according to an annual online poll of 3.26 million people by the state-run People's Daily last month.

A series of scandals from melamine-laced baby formula and rat meat sold as mutton have stoked food-safety fears in China. Thousands of dead pigs found in a Shanghai river, the city's water source, raised concerns about water contamination.

The State Council announced a plan last month to enhance food quality and prioritise development of organic and pollutant-free agriculture over the next six years.

Though the definition for organic varies by country, it typically means foods produced with no pesticides or fertilisers, or with only natural ones such as manure instead of synthetic fertilisers. The number of certifications issued to organic products more than doubled in four years to the end of 2013, according to government data.

Sales of those items reached 80 billion yuan (HK$101 billion) at the end of 2012, the most recent year for such figures. Sales of packaged organic foods such as honey and cereals jumped 46 per cent in China last year to 5.94 billion yuan, after rising 40 per cent in 2012, according to Euromonitor International.

The demand for more natural food has led to regular organic farmers' markets outside Beijing.