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

I’m Sure It’ll be Fine: Street Food and Food Safety Standards in China
Apr 27, 2017 By Elaine Pang , eChinacities.com

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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"Street food is more than just a way to fill one’s stomach in China; it is an integral part of the food culture. " That about sums it all up. China is changing so quickly... Lets enjoy the street food while it lasts.

Sep 05, 2017 15:24 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



I might fall into that much dreaded Westerner Foodie stereotype : I eat my breakfast in the street for 3 years and counting, and I've been completely fine so far ^^ I go mostly for the thin pancakes filled with various vegetables and vegetable-filled buns. Meat is definitely dodgy, in street and elsewhere (no refrigeration, cheapest quality, etc...). Notable exceptions were some soups (was in Yunnan) where the meat was very thin slices of mostly fat-free bits. Gutter oil is a concern too, beware the deep fried stuffs. It's cause of all my bad stomach days so far.

Oct 25, 2013 08:59 Report Abuse



I'd trust a bit of food that has been prepared right in front of me over something that has been sitting in a five star hotel's bain marie for four or five hours any day of the week. I'm happy to see that there will be a bit of, hopefully sensible, regulation of the street sellers that I would like to see focused on hygiene standards (obviously) and also making sure that they don't create an obstacle for pedestrians. Seeing an improvement in the standards of the chengguan would also be a plus. As for JayKnox: Wow, you found something you don't like and told us about it. You figured out that westerners might like western food (whatever "western food" is). You even went to the bother of creating a diametrically opposite "foodie" straw man and punched it in the face! Well done, you're my new hero and your medal is in the post.

Oct 24, 2013 18:47 Report Abuse



Not sure why I am bothering but anyway. Why WOULD a person who you have never met and has the audacity to have different views to your norms be "highly annoying". I answered the question with my genuine feeling on the subject. I don't seek anyone's approval and am fine with many disagreeing with my tastes. What I am not fine with is your judgemental high and mighty attitude. If you don't like it. Don't fkn eat it. If you don't want to read other varied opinions, don't visit a fkn forum or if you do learn to read what was said and discus civilly. And you dare to think that I am saying what I say to score some points.

Oct 26, 2013 12:41 Report Abuse



I think you could make a ton of money opening a lemonade stand at any one of the parks on a hot day anywhere in China. You could keep that pretty sanitary I think.

Oct 23, 2013 19:57 Report Abuse



@JayKnox u r telling the truth with every word and I think most of your opinion can easily used for many CHinese small casual restaurant and snack bars, too! I so nowhere on the world so many people vomiting on the street (cos of the food) as in China.

Oct 23, 2013 18:33 Report Abuse



I was eating in Hong Kong , one month ago some food , ready prepared, just was need to make it warm ... Well... I tought that is safe as was look very well and the presentation also very well( wrote on it everything what cotaining) ... I am still on the secound round of antibiotics since then !........... After eat that food, I had a bad smell in my mouth and developed also a maxilary sinusitis because of the bacteria from this food ...... Nothing is safe what you buy , only what you do it at home by yourself is safe !... For me it wwas good lesson this. Thanks God I am a doctor myself and i know what treatment to take when happen something like this and now I am fine also, but after the secound round of antibiotics. So, take care what you eat , from where and when..

Oct 23, 2013 16:42 Report Abuse



I would not eat street food here even I would have nothing to eat at home !.... When I see them with diry hands how they prepare this food in the street , dirty recipients, no curent water ( they use water from dirty bottles, etc) , I feel nausea and I don't know how to pass faster that sellers...... Maybe here they are resistant to some bacterias, but western peoples to at like this, in my cpuntry to say, I never saw this . Even we also have street food, but is more , more clean and there are also protection of law with this. Nobody can do food in the street if there are not the right conditions to can do this , as water connection, hands protection, hair(head) protection , etc. Anyway, for local peoples here maybe it is safe , but for me not ! haha

Oct 23, 2013 16:35 Report Abuse



Wow, some people really hate street food. Personally, I like it and far from being a "foodie" tosser I am the sort of person who has always hoovered up terrible scran. Lamb sticks and fried bread are a natural progression for me.

Oct 23, 2013 09:54 Report Abuse



Well put. It has nothing to do with being a hipster foodie, but damn if a 肉夹馍 doesn't hit the spot some times. Or ice cold beer, lamb skewers and barbecued Mantou... makes up for a lot of bad things in my life here.

Oct 23, 2013 14:31 Report Abuse



Agree. I am an Aussie, rarely eat in restaurants back home but I just enjoy wandering around and trying what takes my fancy here. I have been to China 6 times and stayed for up to 3 months at a time. I eat in decent restaurants, hole in the wall places and on the street. One rule only. There has to be plenty of locals buying. I have only eaten what could be termed Western food once. A well off friend thought they would impress me with pizza. It was crap.

Oct 23, 2013 18:19 Report Abuse



Yes. Meat a 3 veg. Boring as bat shit. I just had a meal in a little Muslim hole in the wall place. Some soup made with lamb, some sort of wonton type dish which I made a sensational dipping sauce with chili and vinegar and some little lamb in flaky pastery sausage roll type things. Not to mention a tanghulu or 2 when out walking last night. Who can walk past a BBQ and not buy a skeweror or 10?

Oct 24, 2013 18:07 Report Abuse



Good lord, you sound like the petulant little kid at an extended family gathering who won't eat anything apart from chicken nuggets, chips and tomato sauce. Settle down.

Oct 25, 2013 08:44 Report Abuse



Hang on. I was just answering your question after being called a strange man. I am not a man of the world but have spent a bit of time in China. I was brought up on a basic Western diet but in more recent times as a resident of Sydney and it's very multi cultural population have found great joy in experiencing food from many parts of the world. I very much enjoy the tastes, smells, textures of many different foods and it is one of my great joys while in China. The fizz of Sichuan pepper washed down by a cold beer. MMMM. What gave you the idea that I said anything about ignorant Westerners or what they chose to eat. I was commenting on my likes and choices. Possibly learning to read may help you address your angst.

Oct 26, 2013 12:18 Report Abuse



You really have some poor comprehension skills. You asked "did I have a normal western diet". I stated that I was brought up on meat and 3 veg and IT was boring. That's is what we had day in day out when I was a kid. Rissoles, chops or sausages with potatoes, carrots and peas. Sunday was a roast chicken or lamb with baked veg. Where did I mention anything of a dislike for pizza in general or western food? I stated I had a pizza in China and it was crap. I now love lamb after not eating it much for many years. It used to be the cheapest cut of meat in Australia and is now expensive. By the way I have had some great lamb ribs in China in recent days but they were in a good restaurant. Grilled with cumin spice.

Oct 26, 2013 14:13 Report Abuse



You're just having a tantrum now.

Oct 27, 2013 09:29 Report Abuse



I do love how JayKnox has forgotten he said "beside ANY and ALL Chinese food carts" not "Any food carts in an area which only tourists who aren't used to Chinese food and are worried to death about food poisoning go to" As for the trolling behaviour, I don't usually feed the trolls as they want you to get angry while they sit there with a smile on their face at your anger. This time I suspect it's the other way round though. Jay's trolling and getting ridiculously angry while we all laugh at him.

Oct 28, 2013 13:46 Report Abuse



You have read my mind sir.

Oct 23, 2013 08:43 Report Abuse



I'll take that bet. Bring the money, you'll be needing it. As for the whole issue of questionable food. While a restaurant can't move away if people realise they're not being sanitary, there is something to be said for the fact that the food stalls have to do everything in the open. For a start you don't have to worry about mice or cockroaches falling into your food as it is being cooked.

Oct 23, 2013 13:32 Report Abuse



Personally I avoid Chinese street food, but only because of my concern over gutter oil and other unsanitary and unhealthy practices. If it wasn't for that, I would be eating quite happily. It actually does taste good, and in principle would even be healthy. It's certainly better than hamburger and chips. By the way, even though I speak Chinese quite well, I almost never know the names of Chinese dishes.

Oct 23, 2013 15:50 Report Abuse



Hahahahaha, that's your argument? That in the place where tourists who have only just arrived in China congregate you'll find them eating Western food? When compared against mall food? Are you going to argue that Chinese food is better than Western food cause Chinatown is full of people eating Chinese food too?

Oct 24, 2013 22:11 Report Abuse