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The Curious Case of Chinese Chicken Feet Smugglers

Chinese police have made yet another bust of illicit chicken feet smuggled in from across the border.

XINING, CHINA - MAY 4: (CHINA OUT) A worker ties a ring to the foot of a chicken as a quarantine sign at a chicken slaughtering factory on May 4, 2006 in Xining of Qinghai Province, China. Surveillance has been stepped up in Qinghai Province following the discovery of a dead wild goose carrying the bird flu virus in Gangcha County. The Ministry of Agriculture said on April 30 that the dead bar-headed goose found in the county tested positive for the H5N1 strain, the highly contagious strain that has killed 12 people in China. Qinghai is known as a stopping point for migrating birds and the virus killed thousands of bar-headed geese at a nature reserve in the region in 2005, according to state media. (Photo by )
XINING, CHINA - MAY 4: (CHINA OUT) A worker ties a ring to the foot of a chicken as a quarantine sign at a chicken slaughtering factory on May 4, 2006 in Xining of Qinghai Province, China. Surveillance has been stepped up in Qinghai Province following the discovery of a dead wild goose carrying the bird flu virus in Gangcha County. The Ministry of Agriculture said on April 30 that the dead bar-headed goose found in the county tested positive for the H5N1 strain, the highly contagious strain that has killed 12 people in China. Qinghai is known as a stopping point for migrating birds and the virus killed thousands of bar-headed geese at a nature reserve in the region in 2005, according to state media. (Photo by )

Chinese officials have a lot to worry about: The economy is crashing, the United States is enraged over the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, and smog has reached dangerous levels in Beijing.

Now add chicken feet to the mix: They are such a popular snack that smugglers are importing massive amounts of the sometimes contaminated delicacy to keep up with demand.

This week, Chinese police caught a group of chicken feet smugglers who had avoided inspection by traveling through a nature reserve in Yunnan province, on the border with Laos and Burma. They had roughly 20 tons of illicit meat in tow.

Chicken feet are considered a delicacy across much of Asia, as well as in parts of Mexico, Peru, and Jamaica. In China, they are typically served cold and with a beer.

But demand for the snack has become so high that a black market emerged to make sure suppliers can keep up.

In 2013, Chinese police confiscated 20 tons of chicken feet that were nearly 50-years-old. The spoiled meat had been soaked in bleach to kill off bacteria and make it look white, like freshly slaughtered poultry.

The next year, police arrested 38 people after they were found with a whopping 30,000 tons of peroxide-laced chicken feet.

And in March 2015, customs officials in another nature preserve in Yunnan province seized 133 tons of chicken feet and beef.

Given the size of China’s market for chicken feet, it’s little wonder why smugglers take such risks. In 2014, for example, China bought some $170 million worth of chicken feet from the United States. 

Photo credit: China Photos/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. Twitter: @HenryJohnsoon
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