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Chinese aren't cleaning their plates

A woman eats spicy crayfish at a Nanjing, China, restaurant.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: The Chinese government has take a page from the Department of Homeland Security... Beijing's planning its own color-coded alert system. Not for security, for lousy products -- mainly food. The range goes from a not-so-bad blue up through yellow, orange and red.

It's debatable, though, whether consumers will need help protecting their palates. The Asian economic miracle has created a generation of picky eaters. In Hong Kong, wasted food is a big problem.

Marketplace's Scott Tong reports a few restaurants are taking aim at leftovers.


SCOTT TONG: This qualifies as a good deal for lunch: Five dollars at the Ming General restaurants buys all the sushi you can eat. Take what you want -- but as they say, eat all you take, or else. Each piece you leave on your plate earns you a fine of $1.25. Restaurant spokesperson Tracey Furniss spoke by phone about the owners and their new policy.

TRACEY FURNISS: They saw it in Japan, they thought they'd bring it to Hong Kong. And they just thought this would be a great idea, to make people think about what they are wasting.

One poll found the average Hong Konger tosses out a third of each restaurant serving. Food waste has doubled here in the last five years, as the economic boom means more folks can eat out. And increasingly, all this trash has nowhere to go in overcrowded Hong Kong.

MICHAEL DEGOLYER: In terms of landfill space, we are running out.

Michael Degolyer of Hong Kong Baptist University estimates landfills will fill up in five years. Already, policymakers have to get creative with their rubbish -- they dump it in the historic harbor, then build high-rises on top.

DEGOLYER: The harbor now is beginning to pretty well close up. It's turning from a big harbor into mostly a river, about the same width across most of it.

Degolyer says a blighted waterfront makes it hard for Hong Kong to compete for multinational firms, who may choose to locate elsewhere -- say Singapore or Shanghai. So if trash disposal is a problem for Hong Kong, then cracking down on wasted food would seem a solution.

But fining restaurant-goers who don't clean their plates? That's too confrontational for industry consultant Louis Chan. It turns off customers.

LOUIS CHAN: Like you get angry to the customer, you know, and they will never come back. And they will complain to their friends, to the media, to the government, you know? You are not losing one customer, you may be losing 100 customers.

In fact, many businessmen take their clients out to restaurants and order a ton of food on purpose.

CHAN: On the small table, they order like 10 to 15 dishes. And then dish after dish, you know? For people from Shanghai, they think this is a respect for the clients -- so this is part of the culture.

But the Ming General sushi joint isn't backing down from its war on leftovers. In fact, even if a customer tries something adventurous, like sea slug or eel, and doesn't like it, too bad.

FURNISS: They've got a fine and they know next time not to order it. That has happened. But if you're with someone who's really good and kind maybe they'll eat it for you.

Another solution? Play the ignorant foreigner, "Oh, I didn't know" routine. That gets you off, too.

In Hong Kong, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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