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Notes & comment from the Annual CIES World Food Summit, by Kevin Coupe

SHANGHAI – I’ve only been here a little over 24 hours, but already have been impressed by some fascinating paradoxes in the Chinese economic and retail scene.

1. This may be a Communist country, but you’d never know it from the signs of capitalism that seem to exist almost everywhere. As I look out my hotel window at the skyline, there are an enormous number of brand names lighting up the sky, and in traveling the streets of the city on the way from the airport yesterday and while looking at stores today, it seemed evident that urban China is working to embrace a modern, capitalistic approach business. It may be far more regulated than many of us are used to, but this isn’t your father’s Red China.

2. In visiting one of the city’s “wet markets” today, I was able to get a glimpse of yesterday’s Chinese retail scene – it was a bustling hodge-podge of small shops and independent merchants selling all sorts of fresh foods – dominated by produce that at least looked incredibly enticing. In one corridor, dedicated to cooked foods, the smells of frying food were everywhere and hunger inducing, though the approach to sanitation and food safety issues seemed a bit…lax. Illustrating this in vivid fashion was the room at the end of the corridor where shirtless men stood behind cases of live chickens; local women would come in, feel up various chickens to see which ones seemed plump enough for cooking, and once they’d chosen a bird, the men would go to work – and the blood splattered walls told the rest of the story in stunning color.

3. I also had the chance to visit three major international chain stores today – Tesco, Metro and Carrefour. What was fascinating about all three is that, to varying extents, they are working to approximate some of the “wet market” experience…but with far greater levels of sanitation and much greater focus on food safety and education.

At the Tesco store, for example, dozens of women competed over a case of dead, skinned chickens, feeling them to see which ones seemed freshest for cooking. Around the corner, people were using nets to choose their own live fish for dinner, while others chose from a case of live frogs and eels. As a friend of mine said in surveying the scene, “They live a lot closer to the earth here than we do at home.” That’s true – and while closer to the earth also has its downside, there is something refreshing and energizing about the way food is sold here.

4. The Metro store we visited was an enormous cash-and-carry outlet…but I was impressed by the level of food safety and supply chain information provided to consumers through signs and charts. Clearly, there is an effort to keep the consumer informed. I’m told that part of the reason for this is that, as citizens in an emerging economy, Chinese citizens demands greater transparency. This may be true, but I can’t see any reason why such transparency can’t be replicated everywhere and anywhere.

5. I’m always a little conflicted about finding brands from home in such foreign and exotic locales. On the one hand, it is comforting…but I have to wonder about the long-term impact of imposing our brands on an unsuspecting world. (Of course, the world is very much suspecting, and even as some will bash the US, they crave the brands that we make possible. So everybody’s a little conflicted.)

In the end, of course, we all find comfort where we can. In my case, when I checked into my hotel late Monday, I went over to the window to check out the skyline. And there, five stories down and featuring a familiar green and glowing icon, was a Starbucks.

More tomorrow, as the CIES World Food Business Summit begins…
KC's View:
We’ll take this moment to apologize for the lateness of MNB this morning…while Shanghai is a very modern city, there are some built in restrictions – such as Internet firewalls that even hotel IT people don’t seem to understand – that have thrown a major roadblock into our way. Email is spotty at best, and we can get onto some sites but not others…for no apparent reason. (We’re not even sure that the emails that actually are going out are making it to their destinations.)

We’ll keep at it…and thank you, as always, for your loyalty and patience.