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Why China cracks down on Mukbang influencers

April 14, 2022
topic:Food Security
tags:#China, #food waste, #Mukbang, #food influencers, #social media
by:Sasha Kong
China's legal campaign to crackdown on food waste is targeting an unlikely bunch: young influencers who livestream themselves gobbling up mountains of food in a trend known as Mukbang.

Typically featuring a slim-figured, young online influencer gobbling up an entire table of dishes for four to five people, a trend of live stream eating  called Mukbang, which started in South Korea in 2014, had spread to China in recent years. The mountains of food filling the space between the influencer and the camera are often oil-rich, fatty and spicy. 

In 2019, live-streaming videos of eating had won the most likes in the video app Kuaishou, and their number of shares on China’s Tiktok-like platform, Douyin, surged nearly three times each month, according to a report from April 2021. 

Finally in March of last year, China's crackdown on the entertainment industry had expanded to encompass eating influencers as well, as Beijing enacted an anti-food waste law that seeks to clamp down on the soaring Mukbang trend and punish caterers for wasting food. 

Under the new law, eating influencers and TV shows that feature food eating competitions are subjected to a fine of up to RMB100,000 ($15,680). Restaurants are urged to offer different portions of the same meal and price them accordingly, and proactively remind patrons not to waste food. 

A mechanism was also set up to monitor caterers' food waste, but only through handing out warnings and holding discussions; moreover, it would only dish out penalties of up to RMB50,000 to caterers. The law did not define what would constitute 'serious cases' of food waste.

This follows reports on China’s growing food waste problem, according to which the country’s annual food waste amounts to 35 million tons, about six percent of the total national food supply - enough to feed 350 million people per year. 

Food security tantamount to national security

Beijing views food security as part of national security, with officials calling food security the "important foundation" of national security. The country included a goal for producing over 650 million tons of grain a year in its 14th Five-Year-Plan

"To protect food security, we should get our hands in both food production and prevention of food waste, and put them in equal position," the government said in a statement. "After the pandemic began in 2020, countries around the world scrambled to hoard food, leading to a consistently high food price. The serious situation is a wakeup call for our urgent need to stop food wasting behavior, and to provide legal protection to food security and national security."

Many senior officials and Chinese President Xi Jinping grew up witnessing the Chinese Great Famine between 1959 and 1961, which killed over 40 million people in the country, and so they are looking to put a halt to the trend of food waste, particularly as shown in eating live-streaming videos, said Dr Mark Wang, director of the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies and professor of geography at the University of Melbourne. 

"We have to understand that Xi went through a period of starvation, so the party don’t think food waste is acceptable at all," Dr Wang told FairPlanet. "I also came from a village in poverty. We had to look for tree leaves and skin, but now, nobody is starving. Chinese consumers are demanding higher quality and wider range of food."

The Chinese government estimated that by 2030, the demand for food consumption in the whole country will reach 640 million tons for 1.6 billion people. The figure is also based on an increase in average consumption from 385 kilograms in 2000 to 400 kilograms in 2030. 

A culture of food overconsumption

Dr Wang added that the culture of overconsumption of food in the country can hardly be contained by the national law. 

"Chinese perception of a luxury life is filled with food. In China, if you want to invite a guest, you never order food accurately, but have to order extra to show manners. I am not sure [the law] is effective for individuals to change their behavior," the expert said. 

A reporter in a local media found out that the legal boundaries of what constitutes food waste can be blurry. In a restaurant, for instance, a staffer and a patron had a fight: the patron was required to pay RMB50 for each 200 gram of food he did not consume, but instead, she threw all these into the hotpot, so the restaurant couldn’t define those as wasted food. She had also spotted other dining tables filled with unfinished dishes of fried rice, egg tarts, pizza etc.

Some restaurants are also found to not adhere to the law properly and not charge their customers even if they waste food. Reminders also do not seem to be effective, according to the report. 

An unofficial survey the reporter cited showed that takeaway orders in China reached 17.1 billion worth  RMB835.2 billion, involving 500 million people. Food processing is also found to waste about 8 percent of the total amount of food. 

"Some people in the cities would take the leftover food home. They are the minority, but I hope more and more people behave like my friend," said Dr Wang. 

As for the eating influencers, some of those who had lost their business following the law's implementation had pivoted to livestreaming themselves drinking copious amounts of alcohol to attract attention. 

Community efforts to tackle food waste

Meanwhile, community projects to combat food waste have emerged throughout China, but often face challenges. A shared fridge program started in 2016 in Shanghai placed large refrigerators for people to put in food they could not finish, which could then be taken by other people in need. 

The voluntary program indeed spurred food sharing, but donated food is usually close to expiry dates, and people were found to be taking too much food at a time out of greed. 

Shops have also popped up in Hong Kong and China to sell food close to expiry date for a lower price to reduce waste. Now, the food bank network in China has migrated online, where charities set up pages on online platforms for people to order food from for free. 

Image by Markus Winkler

Article written by:
Sasha Kong
Embed from Getty Images
A livestreamer prepares fruits ahead of a livestreaming session at Qianxun Co.'s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Embed from Getty Images
China is facing soaring prices of some food items, such as vegetables, eggs and pork, which threatens to become a broader inflation problem.
© Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images