Supermarketization is Not the Only Strategy to Enhance Food Safety in China


by Lita Alita | September 4, 2020

Vegetable safety in China is threatened by the overuse of agro-chemicals. To eliminate these food safety hazards, the government attempted to control vegetable retailers through a process of modernization. Traditionally, vegetables were distributed through complex networks of farmer households, traders, intermediaries and stallholders in wet markets, grocery stores and supermarkets. Following the expansion of supermarkets, existing vegetable distribution channels gave way to direct sales and contract farming arranged by supermarket companies. Since the 2000s, local governments have been trying to replace wet markets with supermarkets.  With the support of local governments, the supermarket share in vegetable retail sales increased, from 20 percent in 2013 to 30 percent in 2017, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce. The expansion of supermarkets has led to the reorganization of the vegetable provision system, a development which is also referred to as ‘supermarketization.’

We investigated supermarketization in China’s vegetable retail sector and its impact on vegetable safety. Supermarketization leads to the reorganization of the vegetable provision system through the introduction of their own production bases, but they function in coexistence with conventional supply chains involving wet markets and other retail channels.

While supermarkets are continuously expanding in China as well as in other developing countries, concerns have been expressed regarding the limits or potentially negative impacts of this expansion.  For instance, supermarkets may not fit into the traditional consumption pattern and lifestyle of the consumer.  Berger and van Helvoirt (2018) investigated the location of supermarkets in urban areas and found that retail corporations prefer wealthy neighbourhoods and serve poorer areas much less.

To reveal the impact of supermarketization on food safety and vegetable retail in urban China, a dataset was created, containing 1393 observations from 17 cities, based on publicly available data from the Chinese Food and Drug Administration (CFDA). The empirical results below show 11 combinations of wholesalers and retailers. Percentages represent the rate of contamination in the value chain. Numbers in brackets represent the number of observations for the respective value chain type. Remarkably, 119 observations were supplied by the production base to the supermarket chain, in which only five percent is contaminated. Moreover, the wet market reached a much lower contamination rate (7.2 and 11.9 percent) than the grocery store and local small-scale supermarket.

Figure: Flow of vegetables in value chains and contamination rates

  • Vegetable safety hazards are highly prevalent. In 1393 vegetable samples, 141 (10.2 percent) were reported as ‘excessive pesticide residue detected.'
  • The supermarket chains supply vegetables at the highest safety level (detection rate 5.7 percent) while still relying on external suppliers for provisioning. Only 25.1 percent of the vegetables samples in supermarket chains can be traced back to the production bases owned by the supermarket chains.
  • The wet market provides significantly safer vegetables (detection rate: 7.2 percent) than other small-scale retailers (18.9 percent).

The high safety level of wet markets can be explained in different ways:

  • Stallholders are highly specialized and concentrate on selling either vegetables, fruits or aquaculture products. This specialization may enhance the stallholders’ capacity to control vegetable safety.
  • The governments upgraded the existing wet markets by providing better rapid pesticide-testing equipment, offering free food safety training for stallholders and upgrading storage facilities.
  • Stallholders may benefit from information sharing with peers in the wet market, where a large number of stallholders aggregate in one space, facilitating the knowledge sharing regarding food safety.

Our study showed that wet markets are capable of supplying safe vegetables to the urban consumer, especially in underdeveloped areas that are not yet covered by supermarket chains. Supermarketization is not the only strategy to enhance the safety of vegetables because wet markets may be effective as well.

Alita is a PhD student in the Environmental Policy Group at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands.


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