Buying Organic Food While Traveling in China

A vegetable stall at a market in Beijing,China.

Chalffy / Getty Images

There are a lot of questions visitors may have about the availability of organic food in China. The answer is complicated and all comes down to what the visitor's ultimate philosophy is on "organic" food and their level of trust.

New food scandals seem to be a weekly occurrence – the most famous of which was the melamine-tainted milk and baby formula. At one point Walmart stores in Chongqing were temporarily shut for selling ordinary pork as organic.

The bottom line is, you can find plenty of food in China that claims it is organic, but it ultimately may not be what you (or anyone) would consider organic. That said, Chinese people who have the means are becoming increasingly interested and aware of food safety.

How Do You Say Organic?

The word for organic in Mandarin Chinese is youji, pronounced "yoh gee". The characters are 有机.

If you want to ask if something is organic you can say “zhe ge shi youji ma? This phrase is pronounced ”juh geh sheh yoh gee ma?“

Alternatively, you can show the characters: 这个是有机吗?

Growing Organic Food in China

While China has been on the rise as one of the largest producers of organic vegetables for export, the "organic" food that is for sale domestically is suspect. Export-quality organics go through rigorous testing and inspection before being sent abroad because they fall under the scrutiny of the import country (often Canada and the US) where the criteria are rigid. However, food for the domestic market undergoes no such scrutiny. While checks may nominally be in place, corruption abounds. Organic labels can be easily manufactured.

Buying Organic Food in Supermarkets

In larger cities, there are supermarkets that carry organic brands of imported dry goods, such as raisins, flour, crackers, etc. There is a limited supply of organic dry goods from China.

If you are not vegetarian, your life may be more difficult. It's difficult to find "organic" meat or fish, although you may see labels like "eco-pork." There is no way to know what, if anything, this type of marketing actually means.

Locally grown "organic" vegetables are available in upscale supermarkets; while organic fruits are harder to come by. These vegetables, while claiming to be organic, are often grown in soils that do not meet international standards for organic produce. So while they may truly not have pesticides or herbicides used during growth, they are likely grown in soil that isn't very clean and being watered with water that is also highly polluted.

Ordering Organic Food for Home Delivery

In larger cities there is an increased home-delivery service and online ordering availability of organic foods. One such purveyor in Shanghai is a company called Fields. While not all of the products they sell are organic, these companies tend to try to source the highest quality they can. Specialty companies also work in home delivery of organic milk and yogurt.

If you are in China for a long stay, you may want to look into home delivery for many of your organic needs.

Organic Restaurant Dining

Eating out is tricky. They may advertise the food as being organic but who knows. You can ask "Is this organic?" and the answer will be an enthusiastic "yes!" You can then say to another server "this is not organic, is it?" and they'll answer just as enthusiastically "no."

While the interest and availability of organic foods in China is on the increase, it is nowhere near the standards of Europe/Australia/North America. So, if you're serious about continuing your organic life in China, think like a squirrel and pack enough nuts, seeds, and dried fruit to get you through the winter.