An interesting thing is happening on the “border” between Hong Kong and China.


Let me explain.

Like virtually all countries, China has various limits and duties relating to what can be brought into the country. China is generally quite good at enforcing these limits and duties.

Except for quite some time now it has been looking the other way when it comes to food imports from Hong Kong. If you go to the border between Hong Kong and China, you will see what I mean. There you will see many, many people bringing back into China massive quantities of baby formula and the customs people are doing nothing. Nothing. The same is true for all sorts of other packaged foods being brought into China.

These people are making food runs (particularly for baby formula) because they simply do not trust China’s food supply. I can think of no other explanation. My theory is that China customs is looking the other way on this because those making the trip are not exactly the poorest of the poor and it would be politically unpalatable to crack down on this sort of thing. I can just see the quote: “All I was trying to do was feed my baby something without melamine in it.”  You get the picture. And apparently so does Chinese customs.

Not exactly a long term solution….

For more on China’s food safety issues, check out the following:

Though I have not listed all of the posts we have done on China food safety, I have intentionally made the list long so as to emphasize the recurring and unrelenting nature of the problem.
Will things ever get better and, if so, when, and what will cause the change? Why is China so much worse on its food safety than other countries? Is it? What do you do to protect yourself from dangerous food in China?
  • Why is China so much worse on its food safety? For the same reasons it is so much worse on product quality: short-term focus, strong pricing pressures, no respect for workers, low requirements from most buyers…

  • hanmeng

    So is food safety a comparative advantage?

  • Romario

    I am impressed with how much you say in this post while not saying what everyone is thinking and which might not make it past those in China who stop such things. Nice job on that.

  • MHB

    Culinary liberalism?

  • wairen

    (previous comment did not make it, I think…)
    I have to agree here… relatives ask us all the time to bring things from the States such as vitamins, formula, baby formula etc. Also in China there is a high demand for Australian-made baby formula.
    Also I hear that wealthy Chinese in some places (Beijing for one) are buying plots of land to have their own food grown (which must be waaaaaay outside Fifth Ring Road) so distrustful they are of commercial fruit/vegetables.

  • Richard

    The only thing China Customs seems to seize at the HK border with any enthusiasm are Apple products and drugs. Other than that, pretty much anything is fair game. One result of this is that the array of products available in Guangzhou and Shenzhen is limited compared to Shanghai and Beijing, both of which have much better selections of imported foodstuffs and consumer goods.

  • The US has 5,000 food-related deaths and 300,000 hospitalizations each year.
    Multiply that by the population factor and we get about 20,000 equivalent deaths in China and 1,300,000 hospitalizations.
    Does anyone have the actual Chinese stats?

  • “What do you do to protect yourself from dangerous food in China?”
    Stick to a certain few restaurants, shops and markets whose food does not make us sick – and a year in Tianjin left me with a fairly sensitive digestive tract, so it’s not difficult to figure out which places to avoid.
    And I’m glad my wife produces far more milk than our large and greedy daughter could possibly drink, and that my in-laws are farmers living a considerable distance – and uphill – from the nearest industry. It’s nice being able to get produce directly from the source, the source being people who have a vested interest in your continued health and wellbeing. Especially considering we’re far too far from Hong Kong to make food runs there.
    @wairen: “Also I hear that wealthy Chinese in some places (Beijing for one) are buying plots of land to have their own food grown ”
    Buying? Renting? Haven’t heard of that (perhaps because our village is a bit too far away, just short of the northwest border with Hebei on the way out to Zhangjiakou), but yes, one would certainly have to travel quite some distance outside the 5th Ring, and preferably to the north or northwest as that, with a couple of exceptions such as the much-shrunken Guanting Reservoir, is where the water, if not exactly ‘clean’, is at least up to the relevant standard for that particular watercourse.

  • The baby milk powder runs make regular headlines in Hong Kong. Supermarkets have set per-customer buying limits. Fist-fights have broken out over supplies. Some Hong Kong parents have asked the government to slap an export tax on them for mainlanders. (Not suprising, that idea failed). Now, under public pressure, milk powder companies are offering HK residents home-delivery services, since local parents say they can’t find supplies to feed their babies.
    Resentment grew when it turned out that many of the mainland baby-powder buyers were mass grey-market agents, and not fellow parents.
    On the other hand, money-grubbing Hong Kong merchants are doing a brisk trade. You can get baby milk powder at every tourist spot — bookstores, souvenir kiosks, etc.
    This issue touches a nerve more than, say, agents mass-buying iPads or designer handbags, because feeding one’s baby healthy food is seen as a basic right.
    In border areas like Sheung Shui (near Shenzhen) I’ve seen mainlanders come down just to buy groceries. The funny thing is that densely urban Hong Kong grows almost none of its own food. Why someone would cross the border to buy vegetables from Yunnan, and then bring them back to the mainland, is beyond me. But maybe they really trust the quality here more.
    I also know of many Shenzhen expats who come to Hong Kong every week or two to buy foreign products– though that’s a different issue. I also know of people who will travel across the border for any medical need, even a simple flu shot.

  • Hua Qiao

    It’s common knowledge that Zhong Nan Hai has their own produce farms so they need not worry so much about getting tainted food. My mainland colleagues have 2 items that i should bring back from the US: vitamins and milk powder.
    @ Godfrey: good luck, you’ll never get anything close to an accurate statistic.
    My theory on this is that the big problem is that there is no support for whistle blowers. How could the melamine thing have happened without dozens of people knowing about it? Not all these people that had knowledfe benefited monetarily from the scandal. So why didn’t they go to the authorities? I think the answer is obvious. When you blow the whistle, you have no idea who will be aligned against you, what powerful people you might antagonize. Not worth it.
    Can’t trust the local authories. Can’t go to the press. If you go to beijing, you might end up in a black prison. Your family may be threaltened.

  • Lawrence

    No way is China going to stop this sort of trade. Not worth it in terms of the huge number of rightfully anger people that would create.

  • Foodie

    a new report from Food Safety News makes it clear that these anecdotes, far from applying only to the Chinese, have the potential to crop up in America.