Category: Food and Drink

China retailers face food vigilantes

1. Xue Yanfeng has now filed 40 lawsuits against supermarkets and retailers for violating food safety laws.

2. Under Chinese law, it is no longer the case that a victimized customer has to prove personal injury or loss to receive compensation.

3. Xue has found raisins with no nutritional labels, potato chips with proscribed additives, and biscuits with multiple production dates.

4. In the past 18 months, he has been awarded somewhat over $10,000 in compensation, plus there are 18 other settled cases where compensation was not disclosed.

5. Some provincial reports indicate that 80 to 90 percent of food safety complaints are from “specialist” plaintiffs.

China, of course, has had notoriously lax food safety practices in the past.  So might the actions of these individuals be efficiency-enhancing?  But more than 2/3 of the cases are based on labeling mistakes.

The above is from Bloomberg News.

What should I ask Mary Roach?

I will be doing a Conversation with Tyler with her.  On the off chance you don’t already know, here is a brief Wikipedia summary of her work:

Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science and humor.[1] As of 2016, she has published seven books,: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013), and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016).

But there is much more to her than that.  Here is the full Wikipedia page.  Here is her own home page.

So what should I ask?  I thank you in advance for your inspiration.

Restaurant matching markets in everything those new service sector jobs use my ethnic dining guide instead

This very nice article covers “…a line of people wrapped around the block outside a newly opened restaurant”:

…Surkus, an emerging app that allowed the restaurant to quickly manufacture its ideal crowd and pay the people to stand in place like extras on a movie set. They’ve even been hand-picked by a casting agent of sorts, an algorithmic one that selects each person according to age, location, style and Facebook “likes.”

They may look excited, but that could also be part of the production. Acting disengaged while they idle in line could tarnish their “reputation score,” an identifier that influences whether they’ll be “cast” again. Nobody is forcing the participants to stay, of course, but if they leave, they won’t be paid — their movements are being tracked with geolocation.

Here is the WaPo Peter Holley piece, interesting throughout.  Note that women are often paid more than men, and comedians are starting to use it to fill seats in the nightclub.

Skopje notes

Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of concrete communist architecture.

Link here, photos recommended.  It seems it is also the roast pepper capital of the world, and this:

The city center holds concrete masterpieces sitting alongside every possible era of architecture from the last two millennium. An ancient Castle fortress looks down from one side, and the world’s biggest cross sits atop an inner city mountain on the other. On one side of the Vardar river that cuts through the city center, is a ancient neighbourhood that could be straight out of Istanbul. On the other, the city square with an enormous “Man On a Horse” statue (just don’t say it’s Alexander the Great, believe me) is a pleasurable and walk-able area normally bustling with activity. Connecting the two areas, is the Stone Bridge, built about 700 years ago – on top of much older Roman foundations. The layers and the contrast is unique for any city of this size.

Imagine a city that is part Habsburg in style, part Ottoman, part communist brutalism, and part Las Vegas/Venetian kitsch except it isn’t kitschy, and with a dash of 300 thrown in for good measure, distributed across dozens or is it hundreds of large statues?

The earthquake of 1963 is mentioned fairly often; it destroyed about 80 percent of the city.

Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, and there is a museum in her honor.  A good day trip from Skopje is the St. Jovan Bigorski monastery, some of the finest woodcarving I have seen.  It is striking to view the church in conjunction with the Saudi-financed mosque across the valley, thereby inducing one to ponder the use of stones to capture space in the game of Go.

I am told there are Macedonian enclaves in Totowa, Clifton, and Garfield, New Jersey.

The food is phenomenal, in addition to the roast peppers there are breads, baked pies, meats stewed with vegetables, white beans, stuffed peppers, trout, and Balkan cheeses, all with that farm to table touch.  Further to the south I recommend the garlic spread.

There is sexual dimorphism in Skopje, and I am told that Donald Trump is more popular in this country than in any other.

The major Macedonian exports are chemical goods, machinery, clothing, iron, and steel.  The measured unemployment rate is about 23 percent, and there is a comparative advantage in producing “fake news.”  There are varying estimates for per capita income, but about 13k (PPP) seems in the ballpark.

Politics was discussed and maps were shown.  To put a twist on the famous quotation about religion in India, when it comes to history, every Macedonian is a millionaire.

English proficiency is high, as Macedonian has only slightly more than 2 million inhabitants and none of the immediate neighbors has a language that is very useful elsewhere.  The people are very friendly and helpful, and it is quite safe here for a tourist.

On the television I watched the first quarter of “NBA Team Africa vs. NBA Rest of the World,” Serge Ibaka vs. Dirk Nowitzki, etc., a real game with refs and a crowd, does the NBA even tell the American market about contests such as this?

If food, architecture, and history interest you, visit the fresh and vibrant Skopje.

Is plough use persistently bad for female status?

In countries with a tradition of plough use, women are less likely to participate in the labor market, own firms, and participate in national politics.

And:

…societies that historically used the plough are characterized by higher parental authority granted to the father, by inheritance rules that favor male heirs, and by less freedom for women to move outside the house. She also finds that, in these societies, women are more likely to wear a veil in public and polygamy is less accepted or illegal.

Furthermore:

Past societal norms, too, are related to domestic violence today: women in societies formerly characterized by bride-price have a lower probability and lower intensity of violence today.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Paola Giuliano.  Among other things, this means that how you treat people today really matters for the longer run.

Sentences about cellophane

Cellophane gets an entire chapter in Hisano’s book. As she explains in the paper, cellophane packaging let food vendors manipulate the appearance of foods by controlling the amount of moisture and oxygen that touched a product, thus preventing discoloration. “Cellophane played a big part in how the color of food started to be controlled and standardized,” she says.

…Cellophane, the world’s first transparent packaging film, was invented in 1908 by the Swiss engineer Jacques Brandenberger. He dubbed it “cellophane” as a combination of the words “cellulose” (of which it was made) and “diaphane” (an archaic form of the word “diaphanous,” which is a fancy word for “transparent”). He assigned his patents to La Cellophane Societe Anonyme, a French company formed for the sole purpose of marketing the invention. In 1923, the company licensed to DuPont the exclusive rights to make and sell cellophane in the United States.

…Initial versions of cellophane were waterproof, but not moisture-proof. So, while it was effective for wrapping products like candy and cigarettes, it wasn’t effective for packaging fresh food. In 1927, DuPont developed moisture-proof cellophane, food manufacturers started using it to package items like cakes and cheeses, and cellophane sales tripled between 1928 and 1930.

Here is the full story, interesting throughout, via the estimable Chug.

Those new manufacturing sector jobs

Since 2008, Ford has been continually expanding its Asia Pacific odor laboratory in Nanjing, China. Today, the team consists of 18 ‘super smellers’, who conduct about 300 odor tests each year on materials and components that go into its Asia Pacific vehicles.

…Every year Ford runs an application process to select its team of super smellers in China. Would-be testers can come from any department within the company and are asked to judge material samples in 16 jars. They are judged on their smelling ability and consistency, but must also meet other requirements to qualify for a spot on the prestigious panel.

“You can’t smoke or have allergies and sinus issues,” says Mike Feng, a Ford smell tester for four years. “Wearing perfume, leather jackets or nail polish is also not allowed, and you shouldn’t use strongly scented shampoo to ensure your senses aren’t compromised.”

Ford’s super smellers must requalify annually to maintain their position on the panel and must be available to attend regular odor tests throughout the year. A small group of six panelists form the smell jury for each test and an average of their scores is given to each material sample.

“I’ve always been able to smell things before other people,” adds Feng. “My colleagues say that I can smell what the canteen is serving for lunch before anyone else.”

Here is the full story, via John Chilton.

Chongqing travel notes

1. Especially outside the immediate center of town, it feels as if something wacky is always happening.  Someone is screaming, backslapping, bumping fists, or screaming while backslapping and bumping fists.  Interactions appear to be random, highly intense, and short in duration.  The following interaction is more intense yet.  It reminds me of that old Humphrey Bogart movie “Beat the Devil.”

2. Every cabbie seems to know a random person standing on a street corner, who somehow mysteriously signals to that cab to be picked up, even if said cab already is delivering a Western passenger to some other location.  Shouting ensues, the random person is moved along in the cab only a short distance, always along the Westerner’s route, and then the person is let off again.  With a shout.  Rinse and repeat.

3. It is a better city for street food and stall food than is Chengdu.  The tastes are stronger and spicier, though I believe the peaks of Chengdu are higher and more subtle.

4. Don’t just stick to “the peninsula,” also travel to the alternate sides of the city’s two rivers, the Jialing and the Yangtze.

5. Haagen-Dazs is much more popular in China than in the United States, at least at the retail level.

6. “Sun Zhengcai, the former Communist Party chief of the Chinese city of Chongqing, is under investigation by authorities, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday, citing people it didn’t identify.”  He had been considered a possible successor to Uncle Xi.

7. On my flight from Kunming to Chongqing, I witnessed my first “facial surveillance” arrest.  Just as they were about to let us off the plane, two policemen appeared at the entrance, with a copy of a facial surveillance photograph.  (Before you board any plane in China, they photograph your face plenty, and match it to various databases.)  They walked down the aisle, turning left and right, looking for the passenger who matched the photo.  They found him and escorted him off the plane, with the crowd watching nervously.  He showed neither surprise nor did he protest his innocence.

8. An excellent room in a five-star luxury Chongqing hotel, with view and upgrade to a larger suite, costs $70 a night.

9. Nearby is “the world’s longest cantilevered glass skywalk.

The city’s “mind-blowing overpass has five layers, 20 ramps and eight directions,” good photos at that link.

Here is Wikipedia on Chongqing, by one measure it is China’s most populous metropolitan area.  “Its population is already bigger than that of Peru or Iraq, with half a million more arriving every year in search of a better life,” and that was written eleven years ago.

Minimum Wage and Restaurant Hygiene Violations

This is evidence from Seattle, from a new paper by Subir K. Chakrabarti, Srikant Devaraj, and Pankaj C. Patel.  Here is the abstract:

We assess the effects of rise in minimum wages on hygiene violation scores in food service establishments. Using a difference-in-difference analysis on hygiene rating of food establishments in Seattle [where minimum wage increased annually between 2010 and 2013] as the treated group and from New York City [minimum wage was constant] as the control group, we find an increase in real minimum wage by $0.10 increased total hygiene violation scores by 11.45 percent. Consistent with our theoretical model, an increase in minimum wage in Seattle has no influence in more severe (red) violations, and a significant increase in less severe (blue) violations. Our findings are consistent while using an alternate control group – Bellevue City, King County, located near Seattle.

Of course this makes perfect sense.  Even when minimum wages do not much decrease employment, they are not a free lunch, so to speak.  “There ain’t no such thing as a healthy free lunch” [TANSTAAHFL, the pronunciation differs only slightly] could be the new catchphrase.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

10 Chinese Megacities to See Before You Die

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column; I love Chinese megacities, don’t you?  Here is the first and most general point:

Chinese megacities are associated with the greatest migration in human history, namely the movement of several hundred million people from the countryside into urban areas. This has created over 100 cities with a population of more than one million. And while Westerners tend to see only the harmful effects of that transformation, it’s gone fairly smoothly. Wages and living standards have risen to create the biggest rapid boost in prosperity the world has seen, ever. Surely it’s worth taking a closer look at that.

Here is the most important point:

If you spend a few days in these places, they will stand out as quite distinct. To suggest otherwise is actually to repeat a common Western imperialist meme about the Chinese, namely that they “are all the same” in some underlying manner. Observing and understanding diversity is a skill, and the Chinese megacities are one of the best places for cultivating this capacity.

By the way, the cameo appearance in the opening bit is Dan Wang.

Is there a restaurant bubble?

Mostly not, here is a good article by Maura Judkis.  Here is part of the chat with me:

What’s happening is something that some restaurateurs may not want to hear: Competition in an already-tough business is getting even tougher. Cowen has an analogy: “Say you went to Hollywood and you asked, ‘Is there an actors-and-actresses bubble?’ ” he said. True, there is an overabundance of aspiring stars who move to Los Angeles with dreams of making it big. They spend money, time and effort investing in their future. But for most of them, it will never pay off. Drama-school graduates know the risks, and still, they keep heading west, because they believe that they are different. With some hard work, they’ll be the ones to make it big. The overabundance of young ingenues will continue in perpetuity.

“You have too many people trying, but that’s going to persist more or less forever precisely because the reward is high,” said Cowen. “The world of fancier restaurants” — and casual restaurants, too — “has become more of a winner-take-all world.”

And how is this for a blasé response?:

There may be plenty of openings, but “the lower echelons of the business, they’re tapped out. You can’t find people [staff],” said Paul Guzzardo, a restaurant consultant and partner in several restaurants, including Leopold’s Kafe . He thinks that indicates a bubble, but Cowen disagrees.

“It has not been a speculative fervor,” Cowen said. “The laws changed, prices went up, some places had to adjust.”

The article is substantive throughout.

Shenyang notes

You don’t see many luxury goods shops, as the region has been deindustrializing since the 1990s.  There are modernist 1920s cement buildings scattered in some of the old central parts of the city, but nowhere is it attractive.  There is a nine-hour Chinese movie about the city falling on hard economic times, with its three segments called “Rust,” “Remnants,” and “Rails.”

If you travel a lot, you should not restrict yourself to “nice” places, which are more likely to disappoint.

Many of the city’s faces seem to have Korean, Japanese, or Turkic elements, befitting the location and the history.

The main sight is the Manchu imperial palace, a smaller, more accessible, and more atmospheric version of Beijing’s Forbidden City, but with hints of 17th century Manchurian and Tibetan styles.  This city ruled China in the early years of the Qing Dynasty, before the torch was passed to Beijing.

Embedded in Marshal Zhang’s Mansion is the best museum of money and currency I have seen; the Marshal was a heroic leader in the war against Japan, but later made “a wrong choice” and spent much of his 100-year life under house arrest.

The two major tombs in the city have little to offer except long walks on flat plains leading essentially nowhere.

For food the city shines, even by Chinese standards.  Laobian Dumpling serves what are perhaps the best dumplings I have had, and Xin Fen Tian is the place for fine regional specialties.  The city’s cuisine blends meat-heavy, dumpling-related Manchu dishes, rich and earthy casseroles, stews, and mushrooms, and finally Shandong-inspired seafood styles, stemming from the proximity to the coast.  The quality of the local fruit is high, blueberries and cherries included, and the nuts are famous throughout China.

Here is Wikipedia on the Soviet-Sino conflict of 1929, in which Shenyang (then Mukden) played a significant role.  The Mukden incident of 1931 was used to provoke/excuse the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.  Nowadays, Shenyang is a major stop on the North Korean refugee route to Laos (China returns them to NK, but some other countries will send them to SK).

Hardly any non-Chinese tourists come here, and that seems unlikely to change.  Yet this is a rich corner of history and cuisine, a former leader of Asian industrialization, a major seat of historic conflict, a crossroads of cultures, and now a mostly forgotten piece of turf.  What more could a boy want?

If Shenyang stays sleepy, the world will remain safe!

The Seattle Minimum Wage Study

The Seattle Minimum Wage Study, a study supported and funded in part by the Seattle city government, is out with a new NBER paper evaluating Seattle’s minimum wage increase to $13 an hour and it finds significant dis-employment effects that on net reduce the incomes of minimum wage workers. I farm this one out to Jonathan Meer on FB.

This is the official study that was commissioned several years ago by the city of Seattle to study the impacts of raising the minimum wage, in a move that I applauded at the time as an honest and transparent attempt towards self-examination of a bold policy. It is the first study of a very high city-level minimum wage, with administrative data that has much more detail than is usually available. The first wave (examining the increase to $11/hr) last year was a mixed bag, with fairly imprecise estimates.

These findings, examining another year of data and including the increase to $13/hr, are unequivocal: the policy is an unmitigated disaster. The main findings:

– The numbers of hours worked by low-wage workers fell by *3.5 million hours per quarter*. This was reflected both in thousands of job losses and reductions in hours worked by those who retained their jobs.

– The losses were so dramatic that this increase “reduced income paid to low-wage employees of single-location Seattle businesses by roughly $120 million on an annual basis.” On average, low-wage workers *lost* $125 per month. The minimum wage has always been a lousy income transfer program, but at this level you’d come out ahead just setting a hundred million dollars a year on fire. And that’s before we get into who kept vs lost their jobs.

– Estimates of the response of labor demand are substantially higher than much of the previous research, which may have been expected given how much higher (and how localized) this minimum wage is relative to previously-studied ones.

– The impacts took some time to be reflected in the level of employment, as predicted by Meer and West (2016).

– The authors are able to replicate the results of other papers that find no impact on the restaurant industry with their own data by imposing the same limitations that other researchers have faced. This shows that those papers’ findings were likely driven by their data limitations. This is an important thing to remember as you see knee-jerk responses coming from the usual corners.

– You may also hear that the construction of the comparison group was flawed somehow, and that’s driving the results. I believe that the research team did as good of a job as possible, trying several approaches and presenting all of their findings extensively. There is no cherry-picking here. But more importantly, without getting too deep into the econometric weeds, my sense is that, given the evolution of the Seattle economy over the past two years, these results – if anything – *understate* the extent of the job losses.

This paper not only makes numerous valuable contributions to the economics literature, but should give serious pause to minimum wage advocates. Of course, that’s not what’s happening, to the extent that the mayor of Seattle commissioned *another* study, by an advocacy group at Berkeley whose previous work on the minimum wage is so consistently one-sided that you can set your watch by it, that unsurprisingly finds no effect. They deliberately timed its release for several days before this paper came out, and I find that whole affair abhorrent. Seattle politicians are so unwilling to accept reality that they’ll undermine their own researchers and waste taxpayer dollars on what is barely a cut above propaganda.

I don’t envy the backlash this team is going to face for daring to present results that will be seen as heresy. I know that so many people just desperately want to believe that the minimum wage is a free lunch. It’s not. These job losses will only get worse as the minimum wage climbs higher, and this team is working on linking to demographic data to examine who the losers from this policy are. I fully expect that these losses are borne most heavily by low-income and minority households.

The orca wars escalate, with special reference to the economics of fisheries

The orcas will wait all day for a fisher to accumulate a catch of halibut, and then deftly rob them blind. They will relentlessly stalk individual fishing boats, sometimes forcing them back into port.

Most chilling of all, this is new: After decades of relatively peaceful coexistence with cod and halibut fishers off the coast of Alaska, the region’s orcas appear to be turning on them in greater numbers.

“We’ve been chased out of the Bering Sea,” said Paul Clampitt, Washington State-based co-owner of the F/V Augustine.

Like many boats, the Augustine has tried electronic noisemakers to ward off the animals, but the orcas simply got used to them.

“It became a dinner bell,” said Clampitt.

John McHenry, owner of the F/V Seymour, described orca pods near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as being like a “motorcycle gang.”

“You’d see two of them show up, and that’s the end of the trip. Pretty soon all 40 of them would be around you,” he said.

A report this week in the Alaska Dispatch News outlined instances of aggressive orcas harassing boats relentlessly — even refusing to leave after a desperate skipper cut the engine and drifted silently for 18 hours.

These are not Coasean orcas, or are they?  And sperm whales are now in on the act:

Fishing lines are also being pillaged by sperm whales, the large square-headed whale best known as the white whale in Moby Dick.

“Since 1997, reports of depredation have increased dramatically,” noted a report by the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project.

A remarkable 2006 video by the Avoidance Project captured one of the 50,000 kg whales delicately shaking fish loose from a line. After a particularly heavy assault by sperm whales, fishers are known to pull up lines in which up to 90 per cent of the catch has disappeared or been mangled.

Here is the full story, with video, and further points of interest.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Mark Thorson.