SHANGHAI/HONG KONG • On a dusty industrial lot in northern Hong Kong, a group of travellers sheltered in the shade away from the pressing July heat, packing old cloth bags and backpacks with styrofoam to protect a more precious cargo: smuggled meat.
Crowded amid the warehouses of Sheung Shui, a remote suburb near the border, the group of around 40 are about to take frozen Brazilian beef into China to feed a growing demand for meat that is unsated by local produce or approved imports.
The part-time smugglers, known as "feet" within the trade, are part of an underground industry that has boomed since Beijing launched a crackdown on meat smuggling last year.
"Before, they used trucks, but those were for high-quality beef from Japan and New Zealand and maybe America," one Hong Kong smuggler, Alan Wong, 36, told
Reuters, explaining smugglers could earn 200 yuan (S$44) to 300 yuan per trip. The meat now being carried across the border is of lower quality, he added.
His story, along with interviews with a dozen Customs agents, anti-smuggling officials and traders, paints a picture of an illegal trade along China's borders with Hong Kong and Vietnam, where smugglers are taking bigger risks with food safety as the crackdown drives them deeper underground.
The scale of the smuggling has infuriated legitimate exporters from countries such as Australia, who say black market meat is 30 per cent to 60 per cent cheaper due to high import duties, while the methods now being used raise consumer health concerns.
"You have people stuck with meat on the Vietnam side of the border they can't sell. They start taking it up and down the river and breaking it into smaller units to bring it in," said a Shanghai- based meat industry adviser.
"It is more underground and therefore more dangerous."
China is the world's top meat consumer, but the mainland has long kept a tight grip over imports, often citing safety worries like mad cow disease as the main reason behind bans on major producers such as the United States and India. Consequently, demand has run ahead of domestic production, creating an opportunity for smugglers. US officials said in March "huge" amounts of beef were still getting into China.
Seizures of smuggled meat have jumped close to threefold this year and generated headlines that have alarmed consumers even in a country familiar with food scandals.
Local media reports said last month that the authorities had seized 100,000 tonnes of smuggled frozen meat, some of it so-called "zombie meat" up to 40 years old. Customs officials and police said the oldest meat found this year was four to five years old, but chicken feet dating back to 1967 had been seized in 2013.
The greater scrutiny means Customs agents often no longer turn a blind eye to refrigerated trucks coming into China, forcing smugglers to take more hazardous routes. "People are bringing over one box at a time, just like ants moving home," a Customs official in the city of Changsha, surnamed Huang, told Reuters.
Changsha Customs say around one-third of the 800,000 tonnes of meat that go through it every year is of "unclear origins" outside mainland China.
Student Tang Ming, 23, from China's south-western Guizhou province said she now avoids low-end food stalls. "In wet markets, I try now to avoid buying frozen meat - you just don't know how long it's been kept."