Food in Hong Kong: what's environmentally sound?

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I recently read an interesting book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The author, Michael Pollan, traced the sources of all the food in four very different meals: a McDonald’s fast food lunch; a couple of organic dinners, one from ‘industrial’ organic sources, i.e. raised for the mass market, and one from a single eco-friendly farm; and an elaborate dinner he concocts from foods he’s either hunted (a wild pig) or gathered (mushrooms, etc.) himself.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is well-written and frequently provocative, and Pollan is ideologically quite restrained; the book’s far less polemical than similar tomes in recent years such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Greg Critser’s Fat Land.

Pollan does descend into prolonged introspection at points, especially when trying to decide if he’s capable of shooting the pig (I found myself thinking ‘Just pull the damn trigger, already) for about 30 pages. Overall, I’d certainly recommend the book.

And of course reading this book, as well as a couple of other books on food, has gotten me thinking about how the food in Hong Kong really gets on our tables. I have just begun trying to find some answers to this deceptively simple question, so bear with me. I promise I won’t go on at book length like Pollan does!

So, what do we know about the food we eat in Hong Kong?

The most obvious and salient factors are that the vast majority of Hong Kong’s food is imported, and that a high proportion of this imported food comes from mainland China. The rest of Hong Kong’s food comes from sources scattered all over the world. On a stroll down the aisles of any local supermarket you’ll see products from a number of Asian countries (e.g. Japanese snacks and Thai rice). You’ll also see lots of luxury foods from European sources; that’s to be expected – it’s going to be worth the costs of shipping to send over bars of high-quality chocolate or tins of pâté de foie gras.

But what’s surprising is how many non-luxury but seriously-shipped foods are on Hong Kong’s shelves. For example, China produces lots and lots of chickens, but the frozen ones in my local Park N Shop are from Brazil or the USA, and they’re actually far cheaper than the fresh ones trucked in from the mainland. Large proportions of the dairy products on sale are from Australia and New Zealand. Even bulky products such as paper towels and toilet paper are often shipped across the Pacific so they can be applied to Hong Kong’s spills and, um, let’s just move on.

According to Pollan, of course, all of this is a Very Bad Thing. Buying cheap imports not only exacerbates the environmental problems associated with long-range shipping, it encourages the factory-farming and intensive-processing practices that likely lie behind these products’ cheap prices.

It seems obvious, then, that if we environmentally-conscious types (which surely describes lots of expats in Hong Kong) want to do our best for the world we live in, we should buy fresh, and buy local. And since that, in practice, means ‘buy Chinese’, we have lots of choices: the local wet markets are cornucopias of shining produce, freshly-slaughtered meats, live seafood, and interesting dried, salted, and otherwise-preserved foodstuffs. And it’s likely most of this food comes from not that far away, as Guangdong province has a climate favorable for growing a wide range of food plants nearly year-round, and still lots of farmland and cheap labor.

But if this sounds so ideal, why are expats’ shopping carts at Great or CitySuper or even the nicer Park N Shops frequently so loaded down with imported fruit, meat, and just about everything else? (One note: I’m not looking to get judgmental here; I buy loads of imported stuff myself!)

Well, there’s of course the comfort factor, i.e. many of us would prefer to eat products we’re familiar with. And some expats may be uncomfortable with going to local markets, which can seem quite dirty and chaotic at first glance.

But I think many of us are also concerned about just the issues I’ve been outlining in this article, and that Pollan expands upon in his book: we’re looking for safe, organic produce and milk, and humanely-raised and slaughtered meat. We’ve no doubt heard the news reports about contaminated eggs and fish from the mainland, about all sorts of weird substances being used to stretch soy sauces, and so on. We’ve seen pictures of bear bile farms, and wonder, if bears are treated like that, how about chickens and pigs?

So what’s the best option? Is it better to ‘buy local’, thereby getting fresher, less-processed food that’s been travelled a minimal distance from farm to table. Or is it better to stick to products from overseas that are certified ‘organic’ or ‘humane’, but which must have preserved via freezing, refrigeration or other means, and then have travelled many thousands of petroleum-fueled miles just to get here?

I’ll make an admission here I don’t often make: I just don’t know.

I would be most interested in hearing what the rest of you know or think about this issue.


Some initial web searching did turn up some interesting facts about Hong Kong’s food supply. I’ll just list a few highlights for now.

Hong Kong’s Agriculture and Fisheries Department website is not big on information. It does tell us, for example, that each day Hong Kong people consume 5,600 pigs, and 420 tons of fish – but only 130 cattle.

From a paper prepared for the Legco Secretariat, I found out that in 2000, about 1.8 million live pigs were imported into Hong Kong, and about 450,000 were raised here for slaughter. (I wonder: where would you fit 450,000 pigs in Hong Kong?)

A 2004 report from the US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service provided a view of the Hong Kong market from the perspective of someone trying to break into it with imports. This report yielded some interesting facts:

  • In 2003, local production accounted for 5% of fresh vegetables, 31% of live poultry, and 23% of live pigs. Everything else is imported. (I’m frankly amazed the local production numbers are this high!)
  • This report characterizes the HK food market as exhibiting ‘severe competiton’ for prospective importers.
  • Frozen foods and organic foods are steadily growing in popularity. In 2001 there were just 200 organic products for sale in HK; in 2004 it was 2000. I’ll bet it’s far higher than that just two years later.
  • Hong Kong people are the most impulsive food buyers in Asia.
  • The single most popular snack food in Hong Kong: ice cream. (I’d never have guessed this.)
  • Hong Kong consumers are not brand-loyal when cost differences are involved.
  • Supermarket sales first exceeded wet market sales in 1998, and continue to grow.
  • Here are some figures for the amounts of some selected products that were imported into Hong Kong, and consumed here, in 2003: oranges – 211,000 metric tons; apples – 134,000 metric tons; eggs – 1.548 million; fresh vegetables – 577,000 metric tons; wine – 10.2 million liters; beer – 116 million liters (much attributable to batgung consumption, of course); ice cream – 6,000 metric tons.
  • The top ten food products in Hong Kong: Amoy dim sum, Coca-Cola, Doll dim sum, Dreyer’s ice cream, Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce, Mr Juicy orange juice [aaiiieee! –ed.], Nestle Dairy Farm fresh milk, Nissin instant noodles, Vitasoy soya milk and Yakult lactic drink.

Comments

This is something my husband

This is something my husband and I discuss quite a bit. He asks why I want to buy organic food that's been shipped all the way from X, when we both know that's a drain on resources. But you've hit the nail on the head:

But I think many of us are also concerned about just the issues I’ve been outlining in this article, and that Pollan expands upon in his book: we’re looking for safe, organic produce and milk, and humanely-raised and slaughtered meat. We’ve no doubt heard the news reports about contaminated eggs and fish from the mainland, about all sorts of weird substances being used to stretch soy sauces, and so on. We’ve seen pictures of bear bile farms, and wonder, if bears are treated like that, how about chickens and pigs?

Having been to China and lived in Hong Kong, I just don't trust the food producers to honour environmental or even safety priciples over saving cash. And as I'm pregnant, I'm particularly particular right now about what I put in my body.

Organic chickens: BAD?

Hi Karen;

Thanks much for your insights!

Maybe this article will help ease the cognitive dissonance, at least when it comes to buying chicken. A quick summary: a study in the UK reveals that organic chickens neither taste better nor are better for you than ordinary battery-farmed ones; in fact, it's entirely possible they're worse on both counts.

I recall similar studies on organic produce, i.e. that any health benefits are very hard to identify with any degree of certainty. Pollan admits as much in The Omnivore's Dilemma. But then produce and livestock from China may bring in a whole range of other potential problems, as you've noted.

Mr Tall

Buying fresh chicken at the wetmarket

That's why I like to buy fresh chicken at the wetmarket. You can see for yourself that the chicken is healthy & strong & since it's freshly slaughtered, you don't have to worry so much about e-coli and other problems.

Same w/ buying fresh pork at a pork stall. Some of my in-laws have a pork stall and the pork comes freshly slaughtered from the abattoir every morning.

Of course, you still need to cook the meat thoroughly.

I would rather buy locally raised meat and eggs in HK than imported stuff (when possible). Just last night there was a segment on the news discussing how much more $ the local fish farmers were getting for their fish, because of the problem w/ China raised fish.

oh no!

Sorry, that just makes things even worse ;-). Battery farmed chicken is too cruel for me to contemplate. I guess I'll have to harden my arteries whilst wasting resources on international shipping a little longer.

food glorious food

Well, I recently read "not on the label" which is enough to turn one to permanent fasting if that were an option.
For me the issues are 2 fold - pesticides and residues (including heavy metals and other nasties) and hormones and antibiotics.
My fear is that quite a bit of the food from China has some or all of the above. (Did you read the SCMP thing on chicken causing early puberty in HK kids??).
There are some good local organic options which I'll go into later after my joga class.

Food article from Michael Pollan

Here's an excellent New York Times article from Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's much more, ahem, digestible than the book, and actually covers somewhat different ground. I highly recommend it if you're interested in the relationships between diet, health and culture.

Money quote:

'Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health.'

Organic food in HK

Sorry, it is a couple of days later. Here are 3 options available for home delivery in Hong Kong:
* www.aussieorganics.com - I think they're really quite expensive, but that's a personal opinion
* www.organic-farm.com - they farm in the New Territories and invite you to visit their farm. Their weekly pack is really quite good, and you can do a trial pack to see if you like it before you sign up. You can choose between western and asian vegetables.
* www.hofa.org.hk

The Kadoorie farm also has organic produce and is a great trip out to take the kids to.

Then, for the scary stuff, Greenpeace China (http://www.greenpeace.org/china/en/) has some sobering information on the use of pesticides in the food we eat. It also promotes the Farmer's market in Wanchai (outside the revenue building on a Sunday). We've been to the market, and the most important thing to bear in mind is that the things there are really SEASONAL. So you won't get the variety you may be used to, but it's local, has a small environmental foodprint and is organic. And the people are really nice and the kids like taking the basket to pick stuff there.

I had high hopes for threesixty in the Landmark, but the time I went there all the "fresh" produce, while being organic was very very old and wilted or yellow. I left not having found one single herb, fruit, vegetable or salad that merited purchasing. It was actually quite shocking.

The organic stuff and Park 'n'Shop and Great / City super is fine.

The book I was referring to is : Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence

It really is a tough question

Here's a link to another article, this one from the Times, on the dilemma posed by locally grown vs imported foods. Unfortunately, no clear-cut answers are forthcoming.

Oh, and this BBC article on how western countries' cutting food imports in the name of environmentalism devastates African farmers doesn't make one feel any better, either.

It's a tough issue, indeed.

Local vs organic food?

It's nice to see we're not the only ones obsessing over this thorny issue. Time magazine this week features an excellent article on the 'should I buy organic or local food?' debate.

Another Book to Recommend

I can also recommend "Real Food: What to Eat and Why" by Nina Planck." It addresses US food market issues, but also universal nutrition themes. She focuses on making best choices given the imperfect set of options (personal health, social and environmental). Highly enlightening.

orthorexia

'Orthorexia' is the obsession with 'eating right'. It's discussed in this quite provocative NYT article that recounts how many American kids (I would guess mostly very very White ones, BTW) are getting all neurotic about what they eat because they've had it pounded into them by parents and schools that some foods are not just unhealthy, they're more or less evil.

The comments appended to the article are quite revealing. I didn't have the time (or the stomach) to read them all, but just in the first few there are some violent gusts of reaction from the kinds of parents the article seems to be discussing.  

Hong Kong fresh food

Thanks a bunch to those that posted the links on organic farm produce (couldn't resist the pun). I will definitely follow these up - having just moved to Hong Kong. I am still very concerned about pesticides, pollution and so on here. Can anyone help out and post what THEY have found to be the best sources of fresh food from their research and asking around - veg, meat, fish etc. I know it's just guess work unless you can get the stuff tested in a lab, but I feel like I gotta try!!

It seems it is pot luck at both supermarkets AND wet markets from reading the links here. Obviously I wash all food with good quality spray specific to the job to get as much pesticide off as possible - purchased from the ground floor of the Wing On Department store and also from Wellcome supermarket.

Beyond that, it sounds like the wet markets are no worse than the supermarkets for pesticide residue so I might as well buy there as it's cheaper, more likely to be relatively local, fresher, and also in season. The last points hopefully making the produce higher in nutrients which I am also keen on. So which wet markets can people recommend?? For choice, quality, cleanliness, variety? I am in the mid levels.
Any help is much appreciated!
All the best from someone hoping to live a bit longer and enjoy this beautiful planet some more.....

Walmart to the rescue for fresh produce?

As a follow-up to my article on choosing between imported-but-organic and local-but-not-organic, I recommend reading this short piece by Corby Kummer, the food editor for the Atlantic magazine.

Kummer seems to be a White Person extraordinaire, and initially his article drips with condescension for Walmart and the kinds of icky items the unwashed proles who shop there drag home to consume in their McMansions and rural hovels. But give him credit: someone told him he should give Walmart's produce section a try, since the company was working hard in recent years to source more local/organic foods, and he overcame his distaste and did so, and was surprised by what he found.

Even more to his credit, Kummer then organized a dinner for a group of similarly-snooty foodies featuring matching menus prepared from ingredients from Walmart on one hand, and ingredients from the toney chain Whole Foods on the other. Not only was the food from Walmart far cheaper, but check out the tasting results:

As I had been in my own kitchen, the tasters were surprised when the results were unblinded at the end of the meal and they learned that in a number of instances they had adamantly preferred Walmart produce. And they weren’t entirely happy.

And neither was Kummer, but at least he was honest.

Although the parallel isn't an exact one, we might keep this little experiment in mind the next time we decide whether to buy produce from the expat groceries or the wet markets/supermarkets here in Hong Kong. It would also be interesting to give the same experiment a try here!