No space to compromise on food safety

By Liu Zhun Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/8 0:48:39

Illustrations: Peter C. Espina/GT

Wu Gencheng, more commonly known by his nickname A Da, wowed BBC celebrity chef Rick Stein and an army of foodies with his crunchy and savory scallion pancakes. But without a proper license, the much-loved street food vendor has been told by Shanghai authorities to suspend business until he gets all his documents in place.

Scallion pancakes are a traditional breakfast in Shanghai, and Wu has been doing this business for over 30 years. His unique craftsmanship makes his pancakes stand out among many competitors and built up his reputation in the community. After his interview by the BBC for the documentary Taste of Shanghai went viral among social media users, the pancake maker has been catapulted into fame nationwide.

Wu charges five yuan ($0.75) for one pancake, makes only 300 every day, and limits diners to a maximum of 10 each time. He insists on a traditional way of making pancakes, which means he cannot make as many as others who use machines and appliances to help. For an old man, the job is demanding and not very rewarding since he keeps the price so low. Wu has become a living example of the "spirit of craftsmen," a new slogan used by the Chinese government to encourage perfection, precision and patience in every field of industry. This partly explains why Wu has received a great deal of approval on the Internet.

But it must be noted that for many years, Wu has been unlicensed. It is an international norm that food practitioners are required to go through health and sanitary inspections and acquire licenses before they are allowed to operate. However, Wu, the loyal craftsman, refuses to apply for these required licenses, and, according to him, would shut down his small shop to hide for a few days when officials from the local market supervision and management bureau came to persuade him. His reason, according to The Paper, is that his earnings from selling pancakes are so low that he uses his backyard to prepare his food instead of renting a legal kitchen, so he is ineligible for a license.

Wu may be a popular and devoted craftsman, but he is not a law-abiding one. But still many netizens support him. Quite a lot of people sympathize with his plight, arguing that health and sanitary licenses cannot 100 percent guarantee food safety, noting some food scandals happened to big companies, such as the milk scandal in 2008. "Why bother an old man who makes a living through hard work?" one netizen wrote.

These words of support are no more than a catharsis of their pent-up displeasure with government's incompetence in some areas. Their support is too emotional to take seriously in Wu's case, because unlicensed restaurants are much more likely to have sanitary and health problems, which is common sense.

There is no space to compromise over this matter. A few days ago, also in Shanghai, a Michelin one-star restaurant was forced to close down only one day after receiving the endorsement, also because it runs without proper licenses. 

One must realize that if Wu, a hardworking old man who got up at 3 am every day for 30 years, cannot sustain a legal business in Shanghai, especially given his products are so loved, then something must have gone wrong. Is it because the threshold for accrediting a shop is too high, or the local communal authorities offer ineffective help? We may not know instantly. The good news is that Wu has been approached by local authorities, which can advise him.

Ease of doing business has become increasingly crucial to China nowadays. As China's real economy is being sapped and ripped apart by a massive influx of hot money into the property industry, the Chinese government must nurture small and micro businesses. The work can start from helping a good pancake maker to earn a decent livelihood.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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