Why oranges are so cheap right now

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Thursday, November 13, 2008

I've noticed that in recent weeks oranges have been very cheap in the market.

Orange is a lemon not sold even for a penny
By Zhu Zhe (China Daily)

A text message warning people against eating oranges flooded cell phones across the country on Oct 20. It read: "Tell your families and friends not to eat oranges. Fruit fly maggots have been found (in oranges) in Guangyuan, Sichuan province."

Coming on the heels of the melamine contamination in milk products, it created panic among people and sent orange sales crashing across the country. But there is a difference between the two food scares: melamine does cause urinary track ailments, including kidney stones, whereas maggots don't harm people's health and more importantly they have been found in only some oranges.

The unfounded fear, accompanied by rumors, has created a crisis not only for orange retailers, but also farmers who grow them. Though orange sales have picked up a bit after three weeks of repeated clarifications by the central and local governments, images of rotten oranges and weeping farmers were seen on TV till Tuesday.

Scientists have been trying to explain that fruit flies are not a new pest, and they only harm fruits and not humans. Deng Xiuxin, a specialist in the study of oranges with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said orange fly maggots are as old as oranges. "They're very common ... but easy to control Their chain can be cut off if all affected fruits are destroyed."

What happens if a person swallows a maggot accidentally? Nothing to worry, Deng said, because they won't do much harm. "Some worms in plants can even be eaten as food. There's no need to worry."

But such assurances have not stopped farmers in Sichuan and the other major orange producing provinces of Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi from being reduced to tears, for they have had to destroy tens of thousands of tons of mandarins. A China Central Television report said the total economic loss would be more than 10 billion ($1.46 billion) yuan. That is not surprising because oranges are the highest produced fruit in China after apples.

"We have no idea how all this has happened," Lin Xuezhen, a farmer in Shimen county of Changde in Hunan, said last week. About 45,000 kg of oranges were ready for picking in her orchard, but she could not find a single buyer. She had signed a contract with an agent from Anhui province early last month to sell the oranges at 0.9 yuan a kg, but he withdrew after the demand for oranges in Anhui crashed. "I've spent whatever I had on the orchard. If no one buys my oranges, my family will be left penniless," she says.

A couple of days ago, Lin called China Daily to say she had finally found a buyer. But he would pay her 10,000 yuan for her oranges, whereas she could have got 40,000 yuan for them in normal times.

Hao Jinming, manager of Changchun-based Haoshi company, who has been buying and selling oranges in Shimen for 19 years, said the retail price of oranges has drop from 4 yuan to 1 yuan a kg. The situation elsewhere is no better. Chen Shouyun, an orange dealer in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, said: "Last week, I didn't sell even one kg of oranges when normally I used to sell at least 5,000 kg a day." At Beijing's Mingguangsi wholesale fruit market, vendor Li Mingzhen said few buyers are seen even now, when the price of tangerine has fallen by half.

The central and local governments have responded to the crisis by explaining to people that the maggot outbreak is confined to an area and that they are not a health threat. On Oct 21, the Sichuan provincial government said a farm in Wangcang county first reported the failure of its mandarin harvest because of fruit flies. A survey then found about 9 percent of the county's 68,000 orange trees had been affected.

"Talk of a large-scale outbreak is just a rumor, and all affected fruits have been destroyed," Tan Jiaxing, a senior official of the provincial agricultural department, announced publicly. The Sichuan provincial government then bought 20 tons of oranges and offered them free to retailers in Chengdu. To prove that the fruits were safe, Chen Xiaohua, vice-minister of agriculture, and Zhang Zuoha, vice-governor of Sichuan, even ate them in public.

Such efforts have improved sales and restored consumer confidence to a large extent. But the fear of unsafe food still haunts the public.

David Byrne, former EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, said: "The government should not only tell the public that somebody is responsible for the food problem, but also that there is a plan to correct it, and that plan is working."

Chao Naipeng, professor of communications in Nanjing University, said the public has become very sensitive to food safety. "The panic and anger caused by news of maggot in oranges is strong enough an impetus for people to forward the text message to others." If such information is spread through the mobile phone, it'll spread too fast for governments to take any counter measures, he said. And since such messages are usually shared among family members, friends or co-workers, they appear to be correct.

That's why governments need to do more. Mao Shoulong, professor of political science in Renmin University of China said such clarifications should follow weather forecast patterns. "The forecast should not only say the weather will be bad, but also tell people the damage it could cause and how to avoid it."

"The government should speak to the public directly," Byrne said. "It should also establish a close relationship with the media. The media will inflame the issue if they find there is something going on or other information that they don't know."

Huang Zhiling in Sichuan, Feng Zhiwei in Hunan and Cui Xiaohuo in Beijing contributed to the story
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