Qinghai "salmon" controversy is latest blow to consumer confidence in China

A mini-scandal was unintentionally sparked in China in late May by the national broadcaster CCTV, when it ran an upbeat report on its business channel on the success of “salmon” producers in the remote westerly province of Qinghai, at the foot of the Himalayas. 

The region of Qinghai produces 30 percent of China’s overall salmon output, according to Wang Yu Hu, head of the Chinese Agricultural Ministry’s office in Qinghai, which has been keen to promote salmon raising as a revenue source for impoverished peasants. 

However, soon after the report, rumors began on Chinese social media outlets that some opportunistic salmon trading firms may have been passing off locally raised Chinese rainbow trout as salmon. Soon, an online firestorm broke out among consumers worried they had been paying top-dollar for what they’d assumed was imported salmon but which was rather Qinghai trout.

The incident could potentially shatter confidence in salmon among Chinese consumers who have been the object of so much attention from Norwegian and Chilean salmon exporters. Salmon’s recent success in China has been driven by a massive marketing spend by the Norwegian Seafood Council and the adoption in China of Japanese dining trends. Sensing a lucrative opportunity, local governments across China have dived into salmon and trout farming in a bid to make money.

The Qinghai salmon controversy is yet one more wake-up call for a Chinese seafood industry that has become synonymous with fraudulent appellations and rip-offs. There are many traders on various Chinese online grocery stores selling “snow cod” and “black cod” that may in actuality be pollock. Priced at a premium, these “cod” filets are marketed as having health benefits for children and the elderly. 

There are other dubious health claims made by seafood sellers in China. Sea cucumber and abalone smuggled from Mexico, South Africa, and Australia are promoted as a cure-all for men’s health. Various products are promoted and sold as “wild and undomesticated” from the “deep oceans” – with little  factual evidence or details on product specifications or origins. 

Another form of fraud, restaurant overcharging, has become commonplace in coastal cities. Eateries charge astronomical sums for species like lobster, shrimp, and salmon labeled as “wild,” “pure,” and “ecological” seafood, but offer little or no information as to the supplier, the source waters or other details that might substantiate the pricing. 

Another ruse, frequently used on the holiday island of Hainan, sees diners charged per prawn, having ordered on the assumption that prices referred to a dish of shrimp. And in northern Chin, an unlucky diner faced a bill close to USD 1,000 (EUR 857) for a single sturgeonfish in the city of Harbin. The restaurant made all kinds of unverifiable claims as to the sturgeon’s origins and nutritional value. 

Chinese restaurants use the offer of “rare” and “wild” seafood as a selling point in a dining culture where hosts seek to impress guests with rare, pricey dishes. For a nation with a reputation as a collection of thrifty savers who bargain hard, Chinese consumers have proved all too willing to unquestioningly accept the claims of food vendors. 

It’s in this opaque environment that Qinghai trout becomes imported salmon. One-third of salmon sold in China is supplied from local sources, according to the China Fisheries Association, which doesn’t state how local and imported supply are differentiated. “Salmon” is a mere marketing term, according to the association, which argues that trout is part of the oncorhynchus species that also encompasses Atlantic salmon.

According to an alliance of salmon and trout producers in Qinghai, the species being produced translate from Mandarin as salmon (oncorhynchus) and trout (salmo playtcephalus). That alliance claims local sales and exports of 1,600 tons in 2017, with shipments going to Korea, Japan, Russia, and the European Union, marketing its fish under the “Long Yang Xia” – the name of a lake-strewn area popular with tourists in China.

With so much confusion in the marketplace, the recent furor over the Qinghai “salmon” will potentially trigger wider demands for traceability and transparency in labeling from China’s seafood consumers. The situation has been changing somewhat with the success of new retail entrants to the industry, such as the Hema Xian Sheng chain of supermarkets being opened up nationwide by Alibaba. Its customer-focused service and transparency, through better labeling of products, make it the antithesis of China’s traditional retail scene. The promise of traceability and food safety is one of Hema’s strongest hands in attracting customers in China’s seafood sales, a scene that has long been dominated by wet markets and large supermarkets not known for their commitment to traceability. 

There’s a role here, too, for the various certification schemes like the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council, which are trying hard to get a foothold in China. Numerous Chinese seafood firms have secured international certification to bolster their exports. But embracing and declaring full traceability will be a feat slowly achieved, and in the meantime, buyers of seafood in China are best served by remaining skeptical.

Photo courtesy of China Times


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