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The Bold Struggle for China's Belly

(Thursday, March 6, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- DAVID BARBOZA, NY Times: SHANGHAI Inside a flashy new Carrefour supermarket, a group of sales clerks are evoking the sounds, if not the sights and smells, of China's traditional open-air food markets, hawking meat and fish to passing customers.

"Come on. Take a look!" a clerk in a neat blue-and-white apron shouts, offering squid and prawn. "The price is even lower today."

But the giant supermarkets that are slowly coming to dominate the biggest cities in China are hardly traditional. Much of the meat and fish at Carrefour, a giant retailer based in Paris, is displayed in glass cases or wrapped in plastic. To attract shoppers last week, the store piped Western pop music into the streets and hired a troupe of dancers to perform in slinky golden dresses.

The losers in this modernization push are the city's old "wet markets" bustling, chaotic food bazaars that truck in fresh vegetables and live animals every morning for people to buy and cook later in the day.

As a growing number of urban dwellers with refrigerators and microwaves flock to giant modern supermarkets, experts see the beginnings of what could be a food revolution in China. With supermarkets come new food systems, supply chains, food safety regulations and national brands, like Long Feng, a line of frozen foods.

Ultimately, the rise of a modern food distribution system is changing the Chinese diet, as people consume more processed foods and products like milk that the new food industry is delivering to store shelves.

"There's a big impact on farmers and consumers," said Thomas Reardon, a professor at Michigan State University who has studied the growth of supermarkets in China. "This will reshape the whole food economy."

Much of China still buys its daily food supplies at wet markets like the Yuping market in the Changning district of Shanghai, not far from the Carrefour market. There one day last week, Ke Guo Bin, a 32-year-old butcher, proudly displayed his wares: two freshly chopped pig's ears, a pig's tongue, three snouts, one tail and an assortment of other tender cuts from the hog.

"This is all very fresh," Mr. Ke said, sharpening the blade of his knife to butcher-to-order for customers who have just stopped by his booth. "That's why people come here."

The traditional markets retain their appeal for the many Chinese who still prefer fresh foods like carrots, eggplant, celery, jellyfish, squid and the live turtles, eels, frogs, chickens, ducks and pigeons over packaged or frozen goods.

But not many expect markets like Yuping to survive for long in the face of stores like Carrefour or the giant Hymart supermarket at the base of a sports stadium a few blocks west of Mr. Ke's stall. Stadiumlike itself, the Hymart has 18 checkout lanes, dozens of lockers for customers to store shopping bags and aisles the length of a football field.

"The wet markets in the cities are in decline," said Scott Sindler, who works for the United States Agriculture Department office in Shanghai. "What you're seeing is a real explosion in the retail sector, like what we have in the U.S."

Carrefour, Wal-Mart and the Lotus chain of supermarkets, the last owned by a Thai conglomerate, Charoen Pokphand Foods, are expanding rapidly in urban China. Altogether, there are already over 1,000 supermarkets in Shanghai, a metropolitan area of 13 million, and young people and an emerging Chinese middle class are streaming to their aisles and aisles of candy, boxed goods, instant noodles, milk and imported products like Coca-Cola and Danone yogurt.

Visits to three big supermarkets in Shanghai suggest that older people, too, find them appealing. He Wenying, 55, shops at the Carrefour here for the same reason that Americans and other Westerners frequent shopping malls and supermarkets convenience. "I come here more than 10 times a month," she says, holding the hand of her grandson, who stared at a package of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum near the bottom of her cart. "You can get everything here. And you can do all your shopping at once."

Others think that at least a few traditional markets will survive for some time, because the supermarkets rarely carry live fish and animals. Local people like to see the crayfish swimming in tubs of water, the crabs snapping their claws and the turtles ducking in and out of their shells, a sign that dinner could not be any fresher.

And in a country where it is common in restaurants for a waiter to stop by the table with a live, flopping fish minutes before it goes into the skillet, there are many people who will not easily give up the chance to hand-select the soon-to-be slaughtered or fried.

Customers also like to bargain, even over already low prices like those at Yuping, where well-fed chickens go for about $3 a head and a small pigeon can be yours for just $1.75. You can't beat that at Wal-Mart.

One thing that could accelerate the demise of wet markets is anxiety over food safety. A series of widely publicized food-poisoning outbreaks in China in recent years has hurt neighborhood markets because of the perception that they are unclean.

Vendors at Yuping, most from the countryside, are annoyed at the suggestion that they are to blame. "People have the perception that the big supermarket chains are managed by the government and the food is safer, but it's the same meat the very same meat," said Sun Yu Jun, a 23-year-old butcher at Yuping. "We are very clean."

The wet markets are supposed to abide by government sanitary standards, and one evening last week, men could be seen scrubbing and hosing down their booths.

But nearby, two other men were spitting in the vicinity of fresh meat, which often hangs unprotected in the open-air markets. Some meat hangs exposed in supermarkets, too, but a large share of supermarket meat is packaged and refrigerated.

In conversations at Yuping last week, some vendors said they expected to make the transition to working in supermarkets. Others said that they were not prepared to leave behind a world of fresh-bludgeoned fish, and they worried about no longer being able to let the entire family hang out in the butcher's booth during the day quite a common habit.

"The supermarkets are selling everything, and eventually they'll take over places like this," said Mr. Ke, the butcher, taking a drag from a cigarette.

And what will he do if that happens?

His answer came quickly and acidly. "I'll just go back home and plow the land again," Mr. Ke said.