It sounds like something out of a dystopian novel: The fresh fish in many of Beijing’s biggest supermarkets simply disappeared last week, as if summoned to another realm. Social media buzzed with alarm and paranoia. The Beijing News placed a photo of an empty aquarium and an underemployed fishmonger on its front page.
The truth turned out to be something earthier and more familiar. According to state media, someone had tipped off the supermarkets about an impending health inspection. Rather than risk a problem, the stores — including Wal-Mart and Carrefour outlets — unloaded their fish. So far, at least, nobody seems to know where they went.
The incident suggests a few underlying problems. One is that a huge amount of food production in China remains small-scale and untraceable. A 2006 government census found more than 200 million individual agricultural holdings. Some consolidation has taken place since, but not nearly enough. According to state media, the vast majority of Beijing’s freshwater fish supply comes from thousands of independently owned ponds in neighboring provinces, some within an hour or two of the city. During a recent road trip through rural Guangdong Province, I saw small fish farms located willy-nilly throughout the countryside, sometimes next to factories.
Supervising those millions of little farms is nearly impossible, and the farmers know it. On Tuesday, the Beijing News reported that its journalists had visited fish farms near the city that routinely flouted the law, including requirements that farms be registered and that they keep track of the fertilizers and chemicals they put in their ponds. (Alarmingly, some farmers said that they wouldn’t eat their own fish.)
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This situation is worsened by China’s fractured system of oversight. The central government tends to pass off regulation of the food supply to local authorities. Those regulators, in turn, typically have little money or incentive to conduct inspections, and don’t coordinate with their counterparts in other cities and provinces. While agricultural officials oversee what’s produced on farms, meanwhile, food-and-drug agencies monitor what’s in the market. The upshot is that it’s exceedingly unlikely that any one regulator can trace a fish from production in a contaminated pond to a Beijing Wal-Mart. Supermarkets often end up as helpless to control what they buy as their customers are.
A final problem is petty corruption. Although President Xi Jinping has cracked down on misbehavior among senior party leaders, China’s score on Transparency International’s Corruption Index has actually gotten worse since he assumed power. Safety regulators who look the other way when fish ponds are polluted, or who tip off markets that an inspection is coming, are pretty familiar characters to most Chinese.
All these problems extend beyond the fish supply. China has been navigating periodic food-safety scandals for more than a decade, and the toll on public confidence is mounting. Last year, 77 percent of respondents in one poll listed food safety as their top concern. Neighbors often trade tips and rumors about what might be in their food. Two weeks ago, in the southern manufacturing town of Foshan, I was warned off a hotel restaurant because it allegedly served “fake eggs” — whatever that means.
Fixing these problems will require more than patchwork remedies, such as increased reporting requirements or stiffer penalties. China needs rural land reforms that would allow small-time farmers to easily rent or sell their property. Bigger, consolidated farms are much simpler to regulate, and hence typically produce safer food. Regulators need more coordination and more funding. And, finally, the government should encourage and protect journalists who uncover the small-scale corruption underlying all these issues.
Past governments could make excuses for avoiding these problems. The current one, officially the most powerful in a generation, probably can’t — especially if the fish keep disappearing.
Adam Minter is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”