Row over ‘prefabricated’ mutton shines light on China’s frozen meats labelling dilemma

By Mark Godfrey

- Last updated on GMT

Modulated meat has shone a light on the lack of clear meat labelling standards in China's frozen food sector
Modulated meat has shone a light on the lack of clear meat labelling standards in China's frozen food sector
A consumer affairs row has blown up in Beijing over mutton labelling, which could lead to new labelling requirements for manufactured meat.

State-run local media has been highlighting the case of a shopper named Mrs Pan who bought a pack of lamb that turned out to be “prefabricated​” or modulated meat rather than regular meat

State media – which frequently highlights issues of interest to government – has featured Mrs Pan’s confusion over what she thought was regular lamb, but which she discovered was “prefabricated lamb​”, manufactured by the Beijing Cao Yuan Xin Mao Co, a processor of lamb and beef.
When she washed the meat it broke into small pieces, noted Mrs Pan. A label on the packaging stated it was “tiaoli​” – a Mandarin term which can mean blended or harmonised as well as prefabricated. The product contained mutton, salt, water and food flavourings, according to the label.

Interviewed by China Quality News – a newspaper published by the government’s powerful quality watchdog the General Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection & Quarantine (AQSIQ) – Mrs Pan bought five 500g packs of frozen hot pot meat at RMB19.98 per 500g in an outlet of the Wumei supermarket chain in Beijing. She thought the product was on special offer, given that a similar competing product was selling for RMB40 per 500g.

Lack of standards

The episode is shining a light on the lack of clear standards and labelling applications in China’s burgeoning frozen foods sector. “China currently doesn’t have a unified system of definitions and rules for frozen foods,​” Jiang Yan Jing, secretary general of the Frozen Foods Committee at the China Food Industry Association told China Quality News. Regularly printed on China’s standard on foodstuffs, GB7718 requires food companies to name the food type, but there’s no equivalent for frozen foods.

China Quality News sent reporters to supermarkets around Beijing to check labelling on similar products. Meanwhile, the China Chamber of Commerce weighed in with a warning: labelling on reconstituted meat must clearly state if there are other meat types. “For instance, if there’s some poultry added to mutton then it’s clearly not mutton any more,​” the Xin Jing Bao daily newspaper quoted a Mr Liu at the chamber as saying.

Located in the Daxing district in Beijing’s southern suburbs, Beijing Cao Yuan Xin Mao Co (it uses the English name Beijing Grassland Xin Mao Food Co) has a cold storage capacity of 1,000 square metres and supplies beef and mutton to supermarkets and wholesalers. The firm claims its biggest selling product is “mutton roll​” – the rolled up thin strips of mutton is the typical format in which hot pot meat is sold in Chinese supermarket freezer sections.

Hot pot is popular in China – both as a restaurant format and in packaged meat sales – particularly in winter months when temperatures plummet to well below zero. A shift in Chinese urban lifestyle patterns, meanwhile, has unleashed huge demand for frozen foodstuffs in China whereas, previously, the frozen foods sector was largely export-oriented. Much of the frozen foods market is centred in the central province of Henan, China’s most populous, where giants like Sanquan Foods produce frozen foods like dumplings – a staple of the domestic frozen and convenience food sector – for distribution nationwide.
As well as being the world’s top producer of sheep meat, in 2012 China became the world’s top importer of sheep meat, but imports make up only 5% of consumption. Rising Chinese consumption of lamb/mutton is helping increase prices and demand from key suppliers such as Australia and New Zealand.

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