While pig ears and snouts rarely make appearances on Western dining tables, they are hailed as culinary treasures in China — a regional predilection that has led to a booming market in imported pig heads.
However, some of these imported pig heads were discovered being turned into foodstuffs by so-called black workshops, or factories that are not licensed to produce food, and then sold to local markets, The Beijing News reported on Wednesday. According to the newspaper, this business can be a lucrative one: Workshops purchase pig heads at 10 yuan ($1.50) per kilogram, and sell the processed products for up to four times more.
China has a history of food scares, with recent examples including toxic counterfeits being packaged to mimic popular condiment brands and cows being pumped with water to inflate beef prices. But authorities have cracked down on unlicensed food producers in an attempt to clean up the industry.
China leads the world in both production and consumption of pork, and its huge market has triggered fierce competition. A merchant who deals in frozen pig heads and was not named in the Beijing News report said that imported pig heads have advantages because of their comparatively low cost. However, it can take more than a year for pig heads — which have a shelf life of around two years — to go from slaughterhouses to kitchen tables, the merchant added. Facing such a limited turnaround window, importers find it difficult to sell these products to legitimate companies, which has led to black workshops becoming an important distribution channel.
A woman surnamed Wang, who operated a black workshop with her husband in Beijing’s Tongzhou District, told The Beijing News that the food production process is easy: They clean the imported pig heads, shave them, and cook them with soy source and preservatives. Wang said she and her husband cook the heads late at night, and that her husband delivers the cured heads to local markets early in the morning.
The report said that according to a delivery receipt seen at Wang’s residence, the total payment for food products delivered on May 21 was around 275,000 yuan. Wang added that every few days, she and her husband purchased dozens of boxes of pig heads — each weighing 20 kilograms — imported from Germany by a company called Beijing Juzhao Futai Trading Co. Ltd., who could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The trading company’s refrigerated warehouse is located in the same district of Beijing. According to an anonymous source familiar with the situation who was referenced in the report, the warehouse has been operating for more than two years and mainly sells its pig heads to black workshops on the outskirts of the city. The warehouse processes at least 20 tons of pig heads every day, the report added.
On Saturday, police and food authorities, accompanied by reporters from The Beijing News, investigated the refrigerated warehouse and found more than 85,000 kilograms of pig heads imported from Germany and Spain. The police found that the warehouse’s records only included dates, quantities, and sales figures — they did not include names or contact information for any of the companies they sold to. An employee said that all the frozen pig heads were purchased from licensed importers and then sold to food-processing companies, and that there was no need to write down further details, as he had them memorized in his head.
Du Weili, head of the Tongzhou District food and drug inspection team, told The Beijing News that from the on-site inspection, the trading company’s warehouse did have a license to operate and apparently met all basic requirements. However, Du added that if the warehouse was found to sell products to illegal workshops, then it should bear any related legal responsibility.
Wang’s unlicensed workshop, however, was immediately closed down by law enforcement. At another black workshop, 35 boxes of frozen pig heads were confiscated by authorities.
Professor Hu Bingchuan of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Rural Development Institute told Sixth Tone that the market problem is caused by a lack of regulation. “The black workshops typically existed in places where market supervision was relatively weak,” said Hu. “It’s not the trading companies’ obligation to inspect their downstream merchants’ qualifications.”
Contributions: Lin Qiqing; editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Salted pig heads are hung out to dry in Shengzhou, Zhejiang province, Dec. 15, 2013. Wang Zhicheng/IC)