Resto Food Waste - © chefconnexion com

The Chinese Way To Prevent Food Waste At Restaurants

Most folks agree that food waste is unconscionable, a significant contributor to the current shortages and price increases around the world. But no other country has such draconian penalties for wasting food as China…

Chaoshou Dumplings - © topchinatravel.comChoashou dumplings: I almost think I could eat 100 of them. With adequate preparation…

Estimates vary, but it’s generally accepted that human beings as a group – especially those of us who live in the most developed countries – waste from 1/3 to 1/2 of all the food we buy. That sounds crazy. What sounds crazier, though, is that no really hardline steps have been mandated by governments to stop this shameful trend. Except for China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called food waste, “shocking and distressing.” This past March, he declared agricultural supplies the foundation of national security. Clearly, China is deeply concerned about the sustainability of its food supplies in the face of current economic and climate crises.

A serious crime

In Fact, it’s a serious crime against the country and your fellow citizens to waste food in China.

They can’t really do anything to control consumers’ behaviour in their own homes. But in 2021, the Chinese authorities enacted stiff legislation governing restaurant dining, and advertising.

The Chinese law making it a crime to waste food was enacted in 2021. It provides for fines of up to 10,000 yuan ($1,400) for restaurants that “induce or mislead customers to order excessively to cause obvious waste.”

Radio and TV broadcasters, along with online media, can be fined 10 times that amount if they are found guilty of, “making, publishing, [or] promoting programs or audio messages about eating excessively and binge eating and drinking.”

Enter, the Dumpling Contest

An unnamed restaurant in the city of Yibin (in Szechuan Province, near the Nepalese border) was recently nailed – and brutally shamed in the Chinese media – for what seemed to the owners a good way to raise their eatery’s profile. They thought a dumpling-eating contest would be just the thing.

The ‘King Of The Big Stomach’ contest challenged diners to consume 100 chaoshous (spicy wonton dumplings), as quickly as possible to win a free meal and additional prizes. The Waste Police found out about the challenge when the resto owners advertised it on social media.

The State Administration for Market Regulation said it would open an official investigation into whether the resto had contravened the food waste laws.

Hard not to ‘do as the Americans do’

I can understand how hard it must be for Chinese culinary entrepreneurs not to copy their Western counterparts. Events like the annual July 4 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest generate tons of free promotion and news coverage for their sponsors.

But there is a deep divide between those who would go ahead with eating contests and those old enough to remember the famine in China in the 1950s and 60s that killed an estimated 45 million Chinese.

On the other hand, there are younger (we assume) social media devotées who have called the government out on making an example of the resto in Yibin.

“Is this counted as a waste? Why not let people compete for the biggest eater?” wrote one user on Weibo, China’s analogue of Twitter. “You didn’t regulate food safety … but this?”

My take

Okay. First, the eating contest clearly contravenes the letter of the anti-waste law by, “inducing customers to order excessively.” It’s harder to decide whether it contravenes the spirit of the law. Unless you have a little inside knowledge of the competitive eating world.

In the West, where competitive eating has been going on – and growing by leaps and bounds – for a century, now, competitors manifestly waste the food they gobble down for the pleasure of voyeuristic audiences. When the contest is over, they retire to a private place and throw up the contest food. They call it ‘vacating’.

But do they know this trick in China? Odd as it sounds, I’d have to say contestants and the restos that induced them to overeat and over-order would not technically be in violation of the food waste law if they did not ‘vacate’ after the contest. But if they did toss up their load, that would be waste, pure and simple.

The world is a funny old place, ain’t it?

~ Maggie J.