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Cat Meat or Pork?

A closer look at the food safety behind China's infamous street food. Is it cat meat or pork?


Cat Meat or Pork?

A closer look at the food safety behind China's infamous street food. Is it cat meat or pork?


You’re late. You didn’t have time to grab breakfast before work. Rushing out of the subway, the smell of  jianbing floods the street. Its only five kuai. You’re mouth is watering and stomach growling. A little bite won’t do any harm, will it?

We’ve all heard the horror stories of China’s infamous street food. Some have argued that street vendors use cat meat when there is a shortage of beef. Others say some street vendors use chemically softened cardboard instead of pork in steamed buns. The chuanr (串儿) wooden sticks are said to be reused by street vendors.  Some go even further and say that lamb urine is used to give cheap pig meat an authentic lamb flavor.  While these rumors are enough to scare away even the smallest  inclination to reach for that jianbing, one can’t help but wonder whether or not any of these discerning rumors have any substantial truth behind them.

While there is no statistical way to confirm nor deny what type of meat is being used every day  by street vendors,  there have been several organizations that have attempted to conduct studies on the food safety of street food in China. The results are eye-opening and well, literally stomach turning.

 According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the following features of street food in five cities (Xi’an, Hangzhou, Dalian, Baoji and Yiwu) were identified:

  1. 32.2% of the street food vendors  had no license.
  2. Lack of sanitary facility, e.g. 60.2% without clean water and 54.2% without facilities for washing and sterilizing eating utensils, leading to (55%) eating utensils without disinfection.
  3. Lack of hygiene knowledge in food handlers, e.g. 56.7% of the food handlers failed in the hygiene examination.
  4. Violation of hygienic practices by food handlers was common, e.g. 66.4% of the food handlers did not wash hands before manufacturing or selling foods, 64.4% of the food handlers did not use separate tools or utensils for raw and cooked food.
  5. Most Low compliance rate of products; among the 1,000 samples examined, only 47.3% met the hygiene standards. More than half did not.

Because of the lack of hygiene,  the hands of the food handlers serve as the most prominent vehicle to transfer organisms to the food we’re eating. Several studies have shown that  varying organisms, including Campylobacter and E. coli , can actually survive on finger tips even after washing, which in turn leads to the contamination of food.

According to US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health , street food was responsible for 691 food poisoning outbreaks and 49 deaths from 1983 to 1992 in Shangdong Province alone.

 In research conducted by this organization, the following statistics were found:

  1. Bacillus cereus, Clostridium perfringens, Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella and other foodborne bacterial pathogens are commonly detected in street vended foods.
  2. People who patronize street food, have been reported to suffer from food borne diseases like diarrhea, cholera, typhoid fever and food poisoning
  3.  In order to keep prices down, some vendors purchase cheap or adulterated ingredients containing chemical additives from unauthorized suppliers which may further increase the risks associated with the food  prepared.
  4. Contamination of foods by spices which act as spore carriers has been reported to lead to food spoilage and can even lead to food poisoning
  5. Most of the vendors pack the food in polythene bags for their customers. When packing these foods, they blow air into the polythene bags to open them, in this process a number of pathogens can be passed on to the consumer.

Other key factors that can contribute to food poisoning outbreaks include: The preparation of food long before its consumption, storage at ambient temperature, inadequate cooling and reheating, contaminated processed food, and under-cooking.

But wait! There might be hope! According to the Wall Street Journal, China’s government stated that food producers or vendors will be banned from the sector for life if they produce or sell unsafe food, while executives of companies that commit violations won’t be allowed to operate in the industry for five years. They will also ban the reuse of discarded oil, called gutter oil, a persistent problem in China.

According to Businessweek, the city of Beijing has already proposed rules that would impose fines for street vendors barbecuing food by roadsides on smoggy days after pollution readings of  PM2.5 reached a record 993 micrograms this month.

These facts and figures sound scary, however there are some true street food fans that can not resist the tempting smells while walking down the street. For those of you who can’t live without it, try going to stands where there is an abundance of customers that trust the seller. Obviously avoid the sketchy, smelly stands.

Thanks to DNA testing recently carried out on kebabs in Shanghai, it turns out you just might be eating cat meat after all.

Photo Courtesy of Jrodmanjr by Flickr