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I’m Sure It’ll be Fine: Street Food and Food Safety Standards in China

Apr 27, 2017 By Elaine Pang , Comments (1)     Add your comment Newsletter

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Everyone has been horrified by the increasing number of food scandals and we all know that eating food from unregulated street vendors is fraught with dangers, yet we keep doing it. The risks have done little to diminish the allure of a spiced yangrouchuan.

Street food is more than just a way to fill one’s stomach in China; it is an integral part of the food culture. Amidst towering skyscrapers and roaring traffic, a bite into a steaming hot fritter from a street stall is a sure way to be transported back into an era where bus conductors dispensed change and allowed boarding and alighting almost anywhere. And so street food vendors continue despite Chengguan, food scandals and ever tighter restrictions getting in their way.

street food in China

Source: david_hwang

A profile of street food and their sellers

In a country as homogeneous as China, street food is just another of those things that can be found everywhere. While each province boasts of its own specialties, offerings are increasingly evened out as the population becomes more mobile. Barring exceptions like the French crepe-selling duo, the average street vendor is a migrant seeking livelihood in a big city (although, of late, increased competition for nine-to-five jobs has resulted in a younger, more educated crowd trying their hand at business). Their stall is their rice bowl.

Threats to their business range from animal disease outbreaks to “over-zealous” Chengguan officers. The necessity to protect against these threats forges a creativity that outshines even Steve Jobs. For example, disease outbreaks like bird flu could drive a vendor to switch from a poultry-based product line to a tofu-based one overnight and vendors always seem to be one step ahead of the Chengguan in identifying new stall locations.

“Supervise, not ban”

As of April this year, Beijing enacted a new law regulating the peddling of street food. Vendors are required to obtain licenses and operate within fixed locations and at designated times and thus providing a basis for enforcement efforts. Violations attract a 500 RMB fine. This could be a welcome move for vendors, tired of having to flee from the Chengguan. A similar law was passed in Shanghai this September.

And so “Supervise, not ban” appears to be the stance taken by authorities. However, with some vendors concerned about the possible expense and application process for obtaining licenses it is still unclear how well these laws will be implemented.

Chengguan - a force to be reckoned with

Discussing street food without mentioning the Chengguan is impossible. Reports of Chengguan violence have become as routine as food scandals, with targets as young as 13 or as old as 70.

Established in 1997 as “security guards” of the city, the Chengguan’s jurisdiction encompasses non-criminal administrative matters from parking to sanitation, among which managing transient street vendors is just one of them. In Qingdao, they even took on the PLA and came out victorious. Not having the status of police offices, their lack of constitutional backing unfortunately results in a force plagued by members with conduct bordering on the criminal. Tales of extortion and violence are not uncommon with extreme cases resulting in bloodshed or even death. Understandably, they enjoy little sympathy from the public. In some cities, like Shanghai, the Chengguan has taken to enlisting volunteers to do the dirty work in an attempt to prevent riots by enraged on-lookers. This being said, there are also reports of street vendors hurling abuse at or attacking Chengguan before any altercation has taken place.

Currently, the Chengguan’s role is limited to policing street peddlers’ location and food safety is not taken consideration. Should the regulation of street vendors come into effect, a certain degree of cooperation between the Chengguan and food safety departments would be required.

Underdog or aggressor?

Street vendors operate in an imperfect system and most come from marginalized backgrounds. Yet are they the hapless victims in every case? Street vendors have been known to make use of their fly-by-night status to cut corners; anyone who has caught a whiff of heavily-recycled oil while passing a street stall can testify to this. In a particularly extreme case, a Chinese tourist in Beijing was hospitalised for ingesting rat poison in “lamb skewers”. Street vendors may not set out to deliberately sell foods of questionable origins, yet they actually have little impetus to examine their food sources.

The allure of street food in China is indeed inexplicable and it is unlikely that vendors or the Chengguan will be going away anytime soon. While legislation of this industry is still in its infancy, adopt the buyer beware stance while partaking. Enjoy your favorite chive pancake or fried dumplings in moderation. Select stalls with healthy turnovers and discerning clientele, such as those near universities. Locals suggest that stalls operated by married couples tend to be more reliable as their products support an entire family. Engage your senses in observing the preparation process and stall hygiene before buying. While these measures may not be entirely foolproof, you can have your street food and eat it in most situations.

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Keywords: Street vendors Street Food in China Food peddlers and Chengguan

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1 Comments ( Add your comment )


Well-written article. I think 98% of street vendors cut corners. I never took that risk, even when there were no other food options available. And to call it food is being generous.

Apr 29, 2017 11:46

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