28 October 2016
Supermarkets in Hong Kong typically offer substandard produce at outrageous prices -- because they can get away with it. Photo: CNSA
Supermarkets in Hong Kong typically offer substandard produce at outrageous prices -- because they can get away with it. Photo: CNSA

Hong Kong’s superscamarkets

Hong Kong’s restaurateurs enjoy an excellent international reputation for the quality of their dishes.

In contrast, the ordinary shopper has to put up with poor-quality basic foodstuffs at ludicrous prices.

The general perception is that food sourced from mainland China is all too likely to be adulterated, chemically modified or contain toxic insecticides.

Recent studies of international food fraud identified China as one of the top achievers in this multibillion-dollar industry.

Not surprisingly, Hongkongers who do not wish to expose themselves to the health risks attendant on such products eschew the wet markets for our supermarkets.

Regrettably, this is avoiding health risk only to meet, head on, one of the city’s worst scams: the lamentably poor quality of the produce, coupled with prices that would bring tears to a one-eyed hangman’s glass eye.

All those dried-out oranges, rotting onions, potatoes with sprouts shooting out of their skins, not to mention mushrooms packaged to conceal the soaked filaments quietly deteriorating under the cling film.

The high frequency of one item being damaged out of a package of three or four fruits or vegetables cannot be mere coincidence.

One can almost hear the gleeful voices of the packers as they ensure that the rotten produce is distributed evenly across the packages.

Tomatoes are particularly susceptible to this treatment. As for the poor rhubarb, its blackened stumps defy you to sample the woody stalks, especially at the prodigious prices demanded.

Leaving aside the packaging trick, what has happened to flavor?

When did you last taste a superscamarket fruit or vegetable that tasted the way you remember it?

One can only marvel at the skill that is exercised in reducing “fresh” produce to an almost universal flavorless anonymity.

“Fresh” – there is a word that is routinely savaged by the superscamarkets.

Packets of produce, reduced in price, are described as “still fresh” when the mold is creeping like Quatermass over the contents or the odiferous liquid from disintegrating fruit or veg threatens to overflow the gunwales of the container in which they are swimming.

The biggest confidence trick of all is the price of fresh herbs: HK$23 (US$2.96) for 24 grams of flat leaf parsley, basil or coriander from Italy.

Yet superb-quality organic fresh herbs are on sale in the Philippines for next to nothing.

Now that the mainland’s unhygienic chicken farms have spread the contagion of bird flu to Hong Kong, it is virtually impossible to buy a fresh chicken here.

What we are offered are chicken corpses from as far afield as Brazil, their exsanguinated flesh affording as much original flavor as polystyrene foam. From the amount of water still retained in the carcass, one might be forgiven for thinking they had swum from Rio de Janeiro.

All of these putative meat, fruit and vegetable products are retailed at prices unimaginable elsewhere.

Eggs described as “large” – but only in comparison to those of a quail – are priced at anything from HK$50 to HK$90 for six.

Returning from Spain, the comparisons are dramatic.

Six genuinely large eggs for €1.15 (HK$10), a liter of milk for €0.80 (HK$6.80), a loaf of fresh bread for €0.80 (HK$6.80) — the list goes on.

Eggs are my particular bête noir.

Can you remember the last time you bought an egg in Hong Kong the yolk of which stood up proudly like a dome in a translucent membrane surrounded by a very small quantity of thin albumin, rather than the sadly deflated yolk that appears to have lost its way in a watery puddle?

Ah, retort the superscamarketeers, but we have to pay freight charges on all these products.

So do the importers in Singapore and Bangkok, and their prices are markedly cheaper.

But, they protest, don’t forget the rent.

This is particularly rich, since the major superscamarkets are subsidiaries of property developers: “Please sympathise with us, we have to charge ourselves commercial rates.”

Even if we assume that freight and rental costs are the main causes of the obscene prices demanded, they do not answer the question of why we have to put up with such sub-standard produce.

Marks & Spencer sells fruit and vegetables, albeit at prices comparable to the superscamarkets, but the quality is first-class.

Hongkongers are accustomed to being ripped off by property developers who appear to operate a cartel that denies genuine choice, but why do we have to be treated like mugs when buying the staples of life?

If ever there was an urgent need for competition, it is in the retail food industry, but the property magnates have a stranglehold on locations.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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