Government-endorsed food


In late October, Friis Arne Petersen, the Danish ambassador to China, announced that his embassy would introduce Danish agricultural products via online shopping platforms in China, and specifically mentioned high-end organic products.

It's a logical business move. With food safety an ongoing concern for Chinese consumers and imported foreign products often seen as safer albeit more expensive alternatives for choosy consumers, it's hardly a surprise that retailers would seek the aid of embassies to promote their products.

Government agencies from the US, Australia, South Korea, the UK and Italy have made similar forays via the cooperation of online purchasing websites, the Shanghai Evening Post reported.

But questions still remain over how local retailers will respond, and experts have expressed concerns that the flood of foreign products may make it more difficult for consumers to discern between high quality products and cheap pretenders.

Rising demand for foreign food

Employees from online shopping platforms describe the demand in China as "unbelievable," citing examples such as the quickly sold-out 31,971 durians, which were imported from Thailand in October after being recommended by its agriculture department.

The sales dwarf those of physical stores, with one statistic from, an e-commerce platform under the Alibaba Group, mentioning that 50 tons of "wild sea food" imported from Alaska in the US was sold between October 14 and 19, which equaled roughly two years of sales of these products from a large domestic supermarket.

Online imported foods are mainly consumed by young consumers, according to Gu Jianbin, a PR manager from, another e-commerce platform under the Alibaba Group.

Gu said that foreign governments just play the role of an intermediary when recommending products to China's e-commerce platforms, or helping suppliers find places to sell the products and establish branches in China. "They just build a bridge among all the parties involved," he said.

Jia Jia, 33, a resident in Beijing, buys imported foods three times a week through online websites. He told the Global Times that he never found quality problems in the food he had bought.

"I'm afraid that domestic foods are unsafe to eat," Jia said. "I have lost confidence in them."

Government intervention

On July 2, Gary Locke, the US ambassador to China, passed cherries picked from five northern states of the US to Zhang Yong, the CEO of The same day, Locke appeared in a restaurant in Beijing promoting US cherries, reported.

Spurred on by Locke's efforts, the US Northwest Cherry Growers inked contracts with, and the online purchasing model was also modified. The two sides aGREed on a new sales method, where purchasers could see if there are "cherries on a tree" and if so, make an order, the Shanghai Evening Post reported.

The Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Department of Agriculture began to cooperate with Chinese e-commerce platforms in 2011. That year, there were only about 300 kinds of food on offer, but now that number has risen to 1,500, Linston Terry, a vice consul from the agriculture and commerce department at the Shanghai Consulate General of the US, said in October.

Though the value of exports from the US to China exceeded $28.7 billion in 2012, the US still hopes to expand its presence in China's market, said Keith Schneller, a consul from the agriculture and commerce department, said in March, the Chongqing Economic Times reported.

The market for imported seafood, fruits and dairy products in China is growing, Schneller said, adding that China and Asia have been major markets for the US for a long time.

In 2012, Chinese people spent an average of $19 buying US agricultural products through supermarkets, restaurants and enterprises, the Shanghai Consulate General of the US told the Chongqing Economic Times. also uses this model to sell fruit, according to Gu, who added that it was difficult to ensure the quality of these products during transportation. "Since the distance from foreign countries to China is so far, some food may go bad. We usually require clients to make orders earlier and pay a deposit in advance."

Hazards for unwary buyers

Amid the purchasing frenzy, some experts have said that there are possible risks during the transactions.

Zhao Yongsheng, a vice chairman of the Paris-based China-France Association of Lawyers and Economists, told the Global Times that foreign food sold online is not as safe as many consumers have imagined.

"Products produced in both Europe and the US can be traced back to their original place of production," Zhao said. "But in the online sales model, it's impossible for consumers to do that when they find quality problems. Because the transaction chain in this market is so long, problems are likely to emerge," he said, adding that if there were quality issues, governments would not take responsibility.

Zhao also warned that this sales bonanza could attract the attention of unscrupulous sellers. He was echoed by Shao Jiaxiang, a seller of high-end foreign foods who utilizes Weibo to sell to Shanghai customers, who pointed out that Chinese purchasers didn't always have sophisticated awareness of food prices in foreign countries, which could leave an opening for middlemen or wholesalers to increase prices.

Competition concerns

Other experts have also cautioned that government aid to private industry needs to be carefully considered to ensure fairness.

Wu Hongwei, a law professor with the Renmin University of China, said that when foreign foods with government support enter China, consumers should consider whether they have been dumped or have been the recipient of unfair subsidies that would harm local producers.

"In these cases, China's normal market order could be disrupted. As a result, some domestic stores would be closed and many people would lose their jobs," Wu said.

Zhao indicated that the Chinese government should do what it can to aid Chinese producers entering overseas markets.

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