In China, where’s the beef?


Inside the scandal-ridden production facility

Fast food restaurants across China are facing food shortages after a privately held meat processing factory in Shanghai was closed due to hygiene concerns. Undercover investigators uploaded videos of employees collecting meat off the floor and putting it back on the processing line. Others insisted that meat past its use-by date was fine for use. Some of that meat was visibly green and rotten. Quick response mandated that all product of that facility would be questionable. Restaurants relying on orders cancelled immediately.

However, in China there’s not an established second tier supply chain ready to provide thousands of tonnes of meat in a moment’s notice. The established players operate at full capacity to meet long-term contracts. Cancel one order, it may take months to establish another reliable supply.

That leaves consumers across China without meat between their hamburger buns. In many restaurants in Northern China, diners are encouraged to order fish fillets or salads. The Wall Street Journal reports menus are sharply scaled back to a few, core offerings. This past Sunday The New York Times Magazine ran an in-depth article about China’s nascent refrigeration industry. In the USA 70% of all food passes through a “cold chain” of refrigeration at one point in its journey from farm to table. In China that’s less than 5% of all food consumed.

In Shanghai, for example, one large pork processor has no refrigeration system; instead, it does all its slaughtering at night, when the temperature is slightly cooler, in a massive shed with open sides to allow for a cross breeze.

Newcomers to many cities across Asia are surprised at local food buying customs. In place of refrigerated counters with shrink-wrap meat, many vendors sell in open air stalls with little or no refrigeration. That means products are freshly slaughtered and meant for consumption that day. A lot is ruined. One farmer interviewed by The New York times said 25% of his produce rots before it can be sold.

Wet Markets in Hong Kong

Where food rots is a sign of a society’s development. In less developed countries food rots close to where it’s produced. There aren’t the trucks and trains to get it to consumers quickly. In developed nations it rots closer to the plate. People buy too much, pack their refrigerators too tightly, and throw away more uneaten food.

Today in China the rot continues close to the source – this time in a factory trusted to process and supply the meat. Now fast-food chains are reeling from an abrupt suspension in supply, leaving many consumers to mimic a Wendy’s ad from 1984. “Where’s the beef?”

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