“Yes, getting people to eat healthy vegetables and fruits and other products from wet markets is important; but the sanitation side is complex and you face all the horrors of these markets coming from China. … But so much about these wet markets depends on what is grown and how and where. In Europe and the US where the movement toward markets is huge but with high sanitation controls and with farmers with some honesty, it is simple.”
I was recently having an email discussion with an American food scholar, who has written quite a bit on the nutrition transition. He was offering advice and sending helpful information and was broadly sympathetic to my argument about the importance of maintaining the wet markets. However, as you can see from the quote above, there are some real stumbling blocks of the discursive kind that bear further discussion and consideration. I was troubled by these words for a couple of reasons particularly.
The first thing that troubled me was the construction of Chinese/Western binary that is then conflated onto the not-trustworthy/trustworthy binary. This is, of course, a classic case or Orientalism of which Edward Said has written about. Certainly, there are problems with applying Said’s work directly onto the Chinese case. He was referring to literary and artistic constructions of the eastern colonised as compared to the colonisers, and in particular, referring to a particular part of the Orient that does not necessarily include China. But, the basic critique is that Orientalist thinking involves the discursive reference to that which we might consider eastern in somewhat patronising terms. Orientalist constructions are a way to not just distinguish east from west, but also to impose a development hierarchy that privileges the west over the east as being more developed, more dynamic, more rational, more flexible… and apparently more honest. It is also, in this particular case a way to justify the promotion of a return to market food system while at the same time advocating for the demise of that food system in another other places.
This brings me to my second concern. I wonder how a food scholar concerned with food safety can overlook both the current food issues in the west around food safety and the past issues that gave rise to the very sanitation controls referred to in the quote in the first instance and then claim that the western food situation is cleaner, better, and more honest than what we find in the east.
A quick scan of the newspapers and the internet points up a host of current food anxieties in the west around food safety, which call into question the generic belief in the safety of western food products. Every year, according to Emeritus Prof. Hrayr Berberoglu, 25% of Americans experience food poisoning. He goes on to cite the following statistics: In the USA 10 percent of all chickens have salmonella and 60 – 80 percent campylobacter, and 20 percent of the latter is resistant to Antibiotics. Indeed, BSE has been present in US Beef since 2002, which is why the Japanese and South Koreans won’t buy North American or European Beef. And then there was Swine flu (H1N1), blamed on Mexico but others argue had been around for years and came from moving pigs from Eurasia to North America (see this Reurters article published in 2009). What this says is not that farmers or markets in China (and other places) are full of more corrupt individuals, just that there are always food born illnesses to contend with. It is part of an eco-system.
Which isn’t to say that there are not those out to make a some money by cheating. But to claim that this occurs particularly in China is problematic. For example there was the recent horse meat scandal in Europe, where people believed they were eating beef because the food was labeled as such. Likewise, and more recently there is the pork found in Halal food served in schools in the UK (We might also want to ask why the horse meat issue claimed a larger proportion of the headlines worldwide than the issue of Halal food, but that is probably another post). In the US there are discussions and lobbies with regard to GMO crops because people are concerned about the implications for the environment and their health and the lack of science that either proves GMO to be safe or otherwise, while the big food corporations successfully lobby congress not to pass laws that would enable consumers to understand what is in their food. Then there is the fact that large food companies also sell food based not on its nutritional content and its ability to function as a source of human fuel, but instead as Stomach Share. All this while schools are feeding children turkey twizzlers for lunch (remember Jamie Oliver who just wanted children to have healthy food but was lambasted for turning them off) but are ready to ban triangular shaped flapjacks because children might get hurt from the corners. Priorities? Certainly not honesty, integrity and health.
While I believe that the vast majority of food producers are honest in both the west and the east, (screeching record sound) actually what am I saying–no I don’t. Food systems that are built around a lack of connection between consumer and producer and social systems that prioritize the value of money over social values enable the mental separation that gives rise to greed over care for the other. It is a separation that is also discursive. We have stomach share rather than people. Units of product sold rather than meals served to humans. Somehow it is easier to be less ethical when the human is removed from the equation. It turns otherwise honest and sometimes quite lovely people into pariahs. This is the system that is promoted in the US and is promoted in China.
Maybe China does have a bigger food safety issue that the rest of the world, though I am not convinced that is anything more than a western media eager to prove the divide again and again. If there is truth in the argument that the food in the west is safer, then one possible reason may be that the capitalist food systems that we find in the UK and Europe are older than what is in place in China. Europe and North America have been grappling with industrialised food systems for longer (remember that China is only recently industrialised, and it is only recently that the food system was privatised -indeed since the 1980’s).
The US and European food systems had to be made safe, just like China’s industrial food system has to be made safe. We are all quite similar in that regard. We need only look at Upton Sinclair‘s book, The Jungle, published in 1906 and written to highlight the lives of immigrants in the US, but which still causes a visceral reaction with regard to the food standards portrayed, to illustrate the point. It wasn’t until 1937 when FDR introduced the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in the US that standards and safety began to improve. (Notably the British system of food regulation appeared at about the same time). Moreover, while the US once had a sterling food safety system, there are those who argue that recent political lobbying and funding cuts have resulted in a rollback in these safety measures (see for example the work of Geographer Julie Guthman). In Europe today it is the seemingly always under threat, and for some over socialist, European Union that pushes food safety regulations, though others argue that even these regulations are more about providing institutional benefits to some member states, and in some instances don’t adequately address safety issues (see the work of Zsuzsa Gille for example).
What is the takeaway message from this post? Firstly, east and west are not so different and setting them up in an Orientalist fashion helps no-one in a world dominated by globalised and interlinked food systems. Secondly, local food systems are one solution, but not because some out there are more corrupt than we are, but because interpersonal relationships bring accountability. This means we cannot rely on some spatial measure of proximity to act as a quick solution. Someone after all lives next door to the farm or the food factory that engages in neoliberal food practices. For someone that tainted food is local food. Thirdly, it is wise to be wary of quick fixes that blame the other and divert attention from what is the root of the problem. Both east and west are pursuing neoliberal agendas and appear to be converging on the same point with regard to food safety, albeit perhaps from different starting points. Thus all that separates the west from the east is the years of Keynsian economics, which was more amenable to a space of social values and social good. This was an era that enabled food safety systems to be implemented. The conditions are not so today and it would be much harder (it is much harder) to implement similar regimes and institutions (recall the recent Monsanto protection bill).
There are literally hundreds of bloggers/activists on the internet seeking to demonstrate that we need to not be complacent about our food system (eastern or western). A couple are listed here:
In addition to the authors referenced in the text, whom I would encourage anyone to read, I also suggest this paper by Qian Forrest Zhang and Zi Pan that concerns Vegetable farming in China and outlines the changes in the agricultural system. You can find downloadable PDF’s of Forrest’s work on this website.
How to reference this post in non-web publications. If you would like to cite this post I suggest the following format:
Blake, M (2013) Integrity, honesty, and Orientalist food discourses. https://geofoodie.org/2013/05/10/orientalist-food/ Geofoodie.org 10 May 2013 (Accessed: XX/XX/20XX)
- Protesters demonstrate at FDA aganst GMOs (wjla.com)
- Closing wet markets not the solution to H7N9 Avian Flu Virus (geofoodie.org)
- Potential Poisons on the Menu (pioneersinprogress.wordpress.com)
- Orientalism (abagond.wordpress.com)
- Meat plant at centre of horse meat scandal forced to close over food safety concerns (walesonline.co.uk)
- $1.6 Million Worth of Rat Meat Passed of as Lamb in China (inhabitat.com)
- Zeal to ensure clean leafy greens takes bite out of riverside habitat in California (eurekalert.org)
- Former Pro-GMO Scientist Warns Of GMO Food Dangers (secretsofthefed.com)
- Food and Drug Administration won’t reduce food inspections despite budget cuts (triblive.com)
- Muslims “shocked” at halal contamination (itv.com)