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August 25, 2014

The implications of Chinese food scandals on foreign markets

Food scandals in China have led to increased imported food supplies because many Chinese are now reluctant to buy local food products. However, this shift is having a significant impact on the international food market, including Africa, writes Daouda Cissé, Research Fellow at the Centre for Chinese Studies, Stellenbosch University.

DW Tainted food

More and more, the Chinese population is reluctant to consume “made in China” food products. China’s growing middle class is increasingly aiming at acquiring quality food supplies from overseas, particularly when it comes to dairy and meat products. This domestic shift is having a significant impact on the international food market, including Africa. The 2008 “milk scandal”, in which it was found that a number of producers such as Sanlu Group, Arla Mengniu, Yili and Yashili were producing melamine-contaminated milk, continues to be a nightmare for the majority of Chinese. From Hong Kong to Canada, a number of Chinese immigrants have discovered a new business: buying quality food products to resell in China. During one of my trips to Canada, while at a supermarket, I witnessed a Chinese customer attempting to purchase multiple boxes of milk; but once at the cashier, he was told he could only buy a limited number. Aware of the new business of the Chinese to supply quality food at home, measures have been taken to limit the quantity of milk or dairy products that Chinese can buy.

However, while there is a growing domestic interest for overseas quality food, China exports food to other parts of the world. Controversies surrounding China’s food exports persist. The most recent case was the scandal of expired meat supplied by a USA-owned Chinese company in China, Hong Kong and Japan. The international food franchises’ (McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King) meat supplier, Shanghai Husi Food Company, provided these franchises with expired meat to be used in their different products. This scandal has had consequences for the company’s business both in China and neighbouring countries. In Japan, McDonalds cancelled the contract it had with the Chinese meat supplier immediately after the news spread. Family Mart and 7 Eleven in Japan followed suit.

China’s food exports not only raise questions around expiry dates but also make potential buyers think about Chinese counterfeit food products.

Besides, the Chinese population’s scramble for quality food overseas raises food security questions for other countries. Large Chinese quality food imports could, in the long run, mean shortages for several countries’ domestic supplies. China needs to start considering serious food quality control from its companies in order to produce quality food for domestic consumption and exports.

What does this mean for Africa?
Across Africa, like elsewhere in the world, setting up Chinese supermarkets is a business that Chinese traders and businessmen are more and more interested in. Very often, as in the other sectors of commerce, the supermarkets are filled with Chinese products shipped from China to Africa. Their quality is often unknown by consumers who are attracted by their cheap prices. And again, one wonders if there would be problems, once those food products from China displayed in Chinese supermarkets in Africa are subject to inspection for their quality, components and expiry dates.

Furthermore, cheap food product imports from China pose a threat to many African countries’ agricultural products and agro-processing industries. For instance, the tomato cultivation and processing industry in Ghana has suffered from cheap tomato paste imports from China, putting tomato farmers, producers and processing industries out of business.

China’s growing need for quality foodstuffs from overseas versus its cheap food product exports is causing food security problems for many countries. Similarly, African states which supply the Chinese markets with better quality food receive poor quality food which is at time risky for consumption.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Chinese Studies (CCS) at Stellenbosch University. For more information about CCS, please check their website: or contact

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