SHANGHAI - Spend enough time following the dangerous and disgusting trail of Chinese food contamination scandals, and one theme recurs: No matter how weird or disgusting the scandal, it’s probably happened before and — assuming it’s profitable — it’ll almost certainly happen again.
The latest involves a “mom and pop” duck blood counterfeiting ring that was recently uncovered in China’s rural Jiangsu province. The details, as related by Xinhua, China’s state-owned newswire, were not appetizing:
“The couple who own the shop bought chicken blood instead of duck blood at extremely cheap prices, added inedible dyeing and printing agents to make the blood solid, before selling the products to local markets.”
No information was given as to how long the operation had been open, but Xinhua reported it has produced approximately 1 ton of fake duck blood .
Although one might ask why it would be valuable to produce or eat duck blood at all, it is considered a delicacy in China. It’s extracted from a slaughtered duck, heated until it congeals, then cut into squares and served as a dish known as duck blood tofu (it resembles a deep red version of the vegetarian staple).
In my limited experience, it’s akin to what Jell-O would taste and feel like if it came in bloody-lip flavor.
There are two important factors which give rise to an edible duck blood market. First, duck blood is more expensive than cow and chicken blood; and second, many if not most connoisseurs can’t tell if what they’ve eaten tastes like duck, or if it tastes like chicken (blood).
So, if you have the stomach for the business, there’s money to be made in what might be called edible blood arbitrage.
This kind of business isn’t exclusive to blood or China.
However, China, with its weak food regulatory system, and deep connections between local governments and food processors, is particularly ripe for food counterfeiting operations.
The examples are endless — fake poison mutton made from duck, chemicals and mutton grease, high-protein milk made from plastics — and health-threatening.
What’s most depressing is that they’ve succeeded in lowering Chinese expectations for what they can find at their tables.
Take, for example, the reaction of a Beijing duck blood vendor during the last notable counterfeiting scandal, in November 2008.
“For many years, customers have gotten used to fake duck blood,” the vendor told the Beijing News. “If we suddenly start selling them real duck blood, they would be suspicious.”
No doubt, few Americans will sympathize with this problem. But in China, where duck blood is common in restaurants and markets, it’s enough to make a shopper wonder if anything is what it seems. After all, if Ma and Pa are desperate enough to counterfeit blood, what won’t they fake?
The answer, based on last week’s news, is nothing, so long as it’s profitable enough to be worth the risk.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Shanghai.