HONG KONG: In a dusty industrial lot in northern Hong Kong, a group of travellers sheltered in the shade away from the pressing July heat, packing old cloth bags and backpacks with Styrofoam to protect a more precious cargo: smuggled meat.
Crowded amid the warehouses of Sheung Shui, a remote suburb near the mainland border, the group of around 40 are about to take frozen Brazilian beef into China to feed a growing demand for meat that is unsated by local produce or approved imports.
The part-time smugglers, known as "feet" within the trade, are part of an underground industry that has boomed since Beijing launched a crackdown on meat smuggling last year.
Hong Kong smuggler Alan Wong, 36, told Reuters, explaining smugglers could earn 200-300 yuan ($30-50) per trip. The meat now being carried across the border was of lower quality, he added.
Wong's story, along with interviews with a dozen customs agents, anti-smuggling officials and traders, paints a picture of an illegal trade along China's borders with Hong Kong and Vietnam, where smugglers are taking bigger risks with food safety as the crackdown drives them deeper underground.
The scale of the smuggling has infuriated legitimate exporters from countries such as Australia, who say black market meat is 30-60 percent cheaper due to high import duties, while the methods now being used raise consumer health concerns.
"You have people stuck with meat on the Vietnam side of the border they can't sell. They start taking it up and down the river and breaking it into smaller units to bring it in," said a Shanghai-based meat industry advisor. "It's more underground and therefore more dangerous."
China is the world's top meat consumer, but the mainland has long kept a tight grip over imports, often citing safety worries such as mad cow disease as the main reason behind bans on major producers such as the United States and India.
Consequently demand has run ahead of domestic production, creating an opportunity for smugglers. U.S. officials said in March "huge" amounts of beef were still getting into China.
Seizures of smuggled meat have jumped close to threefold this year and generated headlines that have alarmed consumers even in a country wearily familiar with food scandals.
Local media reports said in June authorities had seized 100,000 tonnes of smuggled frozen meat, some of it so-called "zombie meat" up to 40 years old.
The greater scrutiny means customs agents often no longer turn a blind eye to refrigerated trucks coming into China, forcing smugglers to take more hazardous routes.
Once in China, the meat is transported, often in unrefrigerated trucks, to massive wholesale markets across the country's south, where it is sold on to supermarkets, processing plants and rural markets around China.