09/22/2023, 14.25
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Parents revolt against pre-cooked meals in Chinese schools

by John Ai

Pre-cooked food is a booming industry after the Covid pandemic changed people's lifestyles. In the country of food scandals, parents boycott meals distributed to students' canteens for safety reasons. However, the authorities strongly support a rapidly growing sector.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - Local administrations in China are promoting pre-cooked food in schools across the country, raising complaints, opposition and resistance from parents of pupils concerned about the safety of meals due to the food additives used in their preparation.

It is a controverisal topic that is trendiing on social media and online coinciding with the start of the new school year.

Moreover, China is no stranger to scandals and controversies in the food sector, as evidenced by the various cases that have emerged in the last decade alone: from rotten meat to the lack of fresh fish on supermarket counters, from glue shrimp to the drama of melamine milk  which occupied the news for a long time and led to the closure of 45% of dairy industries because they were not up to standard.

Ready-to-eat meals in schools have sparked fierce controversy, so much so that groups of parents in several cities have already complained about the quality of meals delivered to schools.

In the southern province of Guangdong and the eastern province of Zhejiang, many people have filed complaints with the government and local governments asking them to stop delivering pre-cooked food to institutions.

The mounting story worries several school leaders and institutions, so much so that some local executives were quick to deny having distributed ready meals to students.

During the blockade imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns with organized distribution of food to people and families in quarantine, pre-cooked foods have changed the lifestyle of the Chinese and now the ready meals industry appears to be booming.

It is a tempting business, as evidenced by a 2022 Deloitte China report according to which the pre-cooked food market generated around 550 billion yuan (70.62 billion euros) in 2021, with an expected annual growth of 13% in the next five years. Analysts believe the sector will exceed one trillion yuan (128.4 billion euros) in 2026.

Although food additives are already widely used in the modern-era gastronomic and agri-food industries, parents are still concerned about the potential harm to their children.

According to recent media reports, some parents send food to school at midday to avoid having to consume food provided by schools. Furthermore, the ready meals industry is not concentrated and structured on a national level, so much so that over 60% of the companies in the sector are small and medium-sized enterprises.

At the same time, it should be underlined that there are still no clear rules and regulations for this sector and this also represents a factor of concern for families.

Finally, there is also the suspicion of widespread corruption and bribes in the awarding of tenders and concessions, which would end up affecting the quality of food.

China's central government is encouraging and supporting the pre-cooked food industry, which was first listed in official documents in early 2023. And some provinces also mentioned the pre-cooked food sector and industry in their report of annual work.

China's National Development and Reform Commission, the economic planning body, has mentioned among others an industrial-scale business model to promote economic growth and consumption, while the media is also getting involved to attract interest of the population: In fact, in this month of September the state television CCTV broadcast a competition based on the use and consumption of pre-cooked foods.

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