Consumer Response to Changing Food Systems in Urban China

Ann Veeck, Western Michigan University
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - Urban areas of the People’s Republic of China have experienced a dramatic transformation in food systems during the past two decades. Greater efficiencies in agriculture, improved transportation and distribution systems, liberalization of trade, and the increasing privatization of the retail sector have led to a much improved selection of food options year-round in Chinese cities. Furthermore, the increased spending power of urban residents has allowed many consumers the opportunity to take advantage of the abundance of choices in both food retail venues and food selections.
[ to cite ]:
Ann Veeck (2003) ,"Consumer Response to Changing Food Systems in Urban China", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 142.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Page 142

CONSUMER RESPONSE TO CHANGING FOOD SYSTEMS IN URBAN CHINA

Ann Veeck, Western Michigan University

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

Urban areas of the People’s Republic of China have experienced a dramatic transformation in food systems during the past two decades. Greater efficiencies in agriculture, improved transportation and distribution systems, liberalization of trade, and the increasing privatization of the retail sector have led to a much improved selection of food options year-round in Chinese cities. Furthermore, the increased spending power of urban residents has allowed many consumers the opportunity to take advantage of the abundance of choices in both food retail venues and food selections.

This research explores how food consumption patterns are being restructured in urban areas of China in response to the new availability of food choice. The study has its roots in the theory of the prominent French sociologist, Claude Fischler (1980, 1988), who has described what he calls a modern crisis in food choice in the West. Fischler claims that an excess of options in food in modern western society has created anxiety and obsession related to food consumption. Given that the proliferation of food choice in China has occurred at an even faster pace than in the West, one might predict that consumers would experience similar, or even greater, anxiety in response to the new food options. As such, this study has two main goals: 1) to determine f the new abundance of food in urban areas of China are, in fact, creating anxiety and confusion in consumers in relation to food choice, and 2) to identify the strategies that food shoppers use to generate confidence in their choices.

Based on data from a 2001 study in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, this investigation analyzes attitudes towards food choice in light of recent changes in the food system. The study analyzes the results from three focus groups involving a total of twenty consumers who are the primary food shoppers for their families. The focus group participants discussed a number of topics related to food shopping, including food shopping behavior, attitudes towards new food options, perceptions of food safety, strategies of food choices, and trusted sources of food-related information. The focus groups were recorded, transcribed, and translated, and then systematically analyzed.

The findings indicate that, as Fischler would predict, the respondents do experience anxiety and stress related to making safe and nutritious food choices for themselves and family members. The most commonly cited concerns, include 1) poisonous pesticides on vegetables, 2) dangerous levels of preservatives in processed foods, 3) unsanitary handling practices, 4) vegetables poisoned by pollutants, and 5) diseased animals. Predictably, all five of these concerns have direct ties to new options in the food supply, paralleling findings from food theorists studying consumers’ reactions to new food choice in the West. That is, the anxiety of consumers towards the food supply increases as they become further removed from the growing and processing of their food sources, and, thus, lose control over what they put into their mouths.

In response to the anxiety related to food choice, the Chinese consumers have developed "coping strategies" (Sellerberg 1991) to guide their food shopping. Three main "coping strategies" were identified in this study. The first strategy, "relying on one’s own judgment," emphasizes the importance of food shoppers being educated and vigilant to ensure they are providing safe choices for the family. This "buyer beware" philosophy stresses the need to mobilize most of the senses and be on constant alert in the process of identifying the freshest and most sanitary food. This philosophy is shown in the quote by this 58-year-old male:

You have to mainly depend on your own knowledge and experience that you have accumulated from life. Of course, you need use your eyes, nose. Sometimes you can even taste it. If the food tastes good, then basically, it’s safe. If it tastes abnormal, then it’s not safe. When you buy cooked food and you can’t eat it that day, then you need to reheat it thoroughly before you use it.

The second strategy, "finding trusted providers," involves seeking out responsible retailers and manufacturers and patronizing them regularly to reduce insecurity related to unsafe food. For example, some of the respondents seek out food vendors with more direct ties to farms; other respondents placed their trust in certain food stores that they felt pursued sanitary practices and exercised integrity. The following quote from a 30-year-old woman exemplifies this strategy:

As I mentioned before, I never buy food from those small outdoor stands...I go to tofu stores, where I can see their processing procedures. Second, I go to stores that belong to a state-owned organization. Third, I will shop at stores that have gained my trust due to my own experiences.

The final strategy, "unite for change," calls for governmental organizations and consumer groups to exercise greater authority in developing and enforcing rules that would ensure a safer food supply. Many of the respondents feel that the government could and should do more to mandate food safety. In addition, almost all of the respondents feel that it is the responsibility of all food shoppers to organize collectively to boycott dishonest and dangerous farmers, wholesalers, manufacturers, and retailers. This strategy is shown in the following quote of a 59-year-old female:

The citizens should unite to resist dangerous food products. We must not give them a chance to sell counterfeit or spoiled foods.

As outlined in the paper, each of these coping strategies has different public policy implications. Furthermore, it can be expected that, as privatization and deregulation continues to transform the economy, Chinese citizens will increasingly face new questions about health and safety, product reliability, and environmental threats that can lead to private and public anxieties. To respond to these anxieties, a future challenge for consumer groups and governmental agencies in China, as in the West, will be to create a climate of strong consumerism and effective regulation that encourages healthy activism while minimizing mistrust and passive cynicism.

REFERENCES

Fischler, Claude (1988), "Food, Self, and Identity," Social Science Information, 27 (2), 275-292.

Fischler, Claude (1980), "Food Habits, Social Change, and the Nature/Culture Dilemma," Social Science Information, 19 (6), 937-953.

Sellerberg, Ann-Mari (1991), "In Food We Trust? Vitally Necessary Confidence - And Unfamiliar Ways of Attaining It," in Palatable Worlds: Sociocultural Food Studies, eds. E. Furst et al, Oslo: Solum, 193-201.

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