Shanghai food is one of the key attractions for expats during their stay. We let you know what the authorities are doing to make it safe and give you some tips on how to choose wisely.
With more than 60,000 licensed Shanghai restaurants and eateries, 3,000 licensed food production enterprises, a wide-variety of stores, from supermarkets to corner groceries, from bricks and mortar to online, selling fresh and processed, local and imported, vegetarian food and organic food, Shanghai is a food lover’s paradise, or at least it should be.
We have a list of healthy eateries and healthy food stores in Shanghai at the end of this article.
Unfortunately, with all the food scandals and their extensive media coverage over the last few years, it would be understandable for new Shanghai expats to worry about food safety in Shanghai.
In this, Shanghai expats are not alone. Local people are just as concerned, if not more so than Shanghai expats. The local Shanghai government also realizes quite well the seriousness of this issue, and is taking many steps to improve the situation.
They are, however, playing catch-up; trying to get a handle on a very complex issue with a limited amount of funds and man-power. Shanghai expats, therefore, should keep informed about this topic and take precautions.
For a more detailed look at China's new Food Safety law which went into effect on October 1st, 2015 see our food safety Shanghai article.
After settling in, Shanghai expats usually learn quite quickly where to buy and eat safe food. Serious food poisoning in Shanghai is quite rare, and no Shanghai expat has ever been reported to have died from food poisoning.
What's more worrying, however, are the long-term effects of excessive additives and pesticides, non-regulated ingredients, and various dangerous compounds used to make both vegetables and meat grow faster at lower costs.
In a June 2013 interview with Xinhua News agency, Xu Minghuan, a senior official with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, warned that standards for pesticide residue were far lower in China than in most developed countries.
He gave the examples of Japan, which has limits on residue from 62,000 kinds of pesticides, and Hong Kong which has limits on 6,100 kinds of pesticides, as compared to China, which only has limits on residue for 667 pesticides.
Meanwhile, testing for pesticides and additives was also greatly insufficient, as nearly 60 percent of dangerous food additives and residues were not able to be detected by technology currently being used by Chinese food safety authorities.
In a report on China's Food Supply Chain in the German Chamber Ticker magazine in October 2013, the author stated: "According to FAO, China's average pesticide usage is about 10 kg/ha, compared with only 2.3 kg/ha in Germany."
In consideration of the large amounts of pesticides used in China, it is highly recommended to thoroughly wash and even peel all fruits and vegetables before consumption, despite the large amount of nutrients lost in this way.
Another option is to choose organic food in Shanghai, which is becoming more popular among the Shanghai expat community as well as Shanghai locals.
For many reasons, Shanghai food safety is a more complex issue than other concerns affecting health and safety in Shanghai. Sometimes its complexity puts it on the back-burner while easier issues to understand, such as air pollution, get more attention.
At the meetings of Shanghai Political Advisory council in January 2013, only seven of the 800 proposals discussed where in regard to Shanghai food safety, an issue which has dogged Shanghai for years, whereas many more were related to the very recent Shanghai air quality issue.
With the election of a new leadership in Beijing, as well as a new Mayor, Yang Xiong, in Shanghai in February 2013, food safety, was listed as a top priority of all levels of government, along with air and water pollution.
Following the reorganization of the Food Safety administration (CFDA) at the national level, the State Council issued a directive on April 10, 2013 for local governments to follow the same restructuring and combine food and safety functions from several bodies into one local food and drug administration.
The CFDA in Beijing will be responsible for supervising the full process of food's production, circulation and consumption, whereas the local authorities shall take the overall responsibility for food safety of local residents.
The CFDA will also advise provincial governments in food safety supervision work and assess their performance.
The Shanghai authorities were quick to follow this directive, by combining the food safety duties of several government bodies into its own more powerful Shanghai Food and Drug Administration (SFDA).
Although this reorganization ushered in a new beginning for Shanghai food safety, in fact Shanghai local authorities had been tackling the food safety problem with many initiatives over the previous years.
In an interview with AmCham's Insight magazine (PDF file) just before the reorganization of the CFDA, Gu Zhenhua, deputy director general of the Office of Shanghai Municipal Food Safety Committee, spoke about Shanghai being the first city in China to introduce a local food safety law.
Shanghai was also the first city to establish a public hotline for food safety inquiries, food safety violations and complaints (Tel: 12331) which has already received 1.32 million calls between October 8, 2012, and September 15, 2013.
A key internationally recognized strategy to ensure food safety is a traceability system. Shanghai began to develop such a system in 2008, starting with pork products.
The Shanghai World Expo, held in 2010, was a key learning ground and development opportunity for the Shanghai government in the area of food safety.
The Shanghai government set the goal of not allowing a single serious food safety incident inside the Expo grounds during the six-month event, which was attended by over 73 million people and served by more than 250 restaurants and food providers.
In order to achieve this, a traceability system for all food entering the Expo site was established.
This original traceability system developed for the Expo has since been expanded to a more comprehensive food distribution safety information traceability system for Shanghai food.
In 2011 Dairy Producers were included in this platform. By 2012 the platform had more than 1,900 food distributors covering pork, beef, vegetable, seafood, cereals, fruits and special foods.
The Shanghai government's goal is for the electronic food traceability system to cover more than 90 percent of the city’s produce by 2015.
Others measures the new SFDA has taken since its reorganization include:
2. Punishments and fines for food safety violators were raised in line with the Supreme Court’s mandate.
3. Increased rewards for tip-offs of food safety violations. The informant is entitled to awards, ranging from a minimum of RMB 500 (US$ 81) to a maximum of RMB 200,000 (US$32,000). The top reward was already given to someone in Shanghai in June 2013.
The SFDA bi-annual report in mid 2013 stated that Shanghai police detained 119 suspects in 66 food safety criminal cases during the first half year.
Many difficulties, however, still exist. As revealed by the local government in 2012, Shanghai had only 300 staff supervising 3,000 food production enterprises, not enough for effective supervision.
Moreover, these local inspectors focus on local food companies, whereas 75 percent of Shanghai's food comes from other parts of China. Although food imported from overseas through Shanghai ports is strictly tested and occasionally destroyed, food that enters Shanghai from other parts of China is not thoroughly checked.
Therefore, Shanghai relies on food safety officials from these regions to supervise such foodstuffs.
In the interview with the American Chamber's Insight magazine, Gu Zhenhua also warned Shanghai expats that "farm-raised freshwater seafood is high risk. A lot of uncertified medicines are being used when being farmed or transported and this is a threat to the health of the consumer.
"Another challenge is the illegal use of food additives. Even non-food additives are being used, such as chemicals. Finally, prepared food that is provided by some small vendors that are for direct use without being further processed is of relatively high risk as well." Article (PDF file)
Imported foods and foreign companies operating in the foodstuff industry in China have benefitted greatly from local Chinese people's lack of trust in their food safety system.
Foreign supermarkets such as Carrefour and Metro have invested heavily to keep the trust of their local customers as well as Shanghai expats. Carrefour and Metro have both established their own food traceability systems, and send their staff to train local people at all sections of the food chain to improve food safety.
Chinese authorities, however, have been quick to point out that some people are taking advantage of this trust in foreign brands by importing inferior quality products for the Chinese market.
Several foreign companies have also been involved in food safety incidents, so Shanghai expats should never take for granted who they trust and always keep informed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) was invited to hold an exhibition during the Shanghai World Expo, to inform and educate the public on how they can better protect themselves by taking simple measures in their own kitchen. The WHO has developed its Five Keys to Safer Food: