SARS – or at least the sense of an epidemic – came late to Taiwan. Not until mid-April, a time when SARS outbreaks were already under control or subsiding in Vietnam and Singapore, for example, did concerns about the airborne virus finally rattle Taiwan’s 22.6 million citizens. But in early May, SARS began spreading in Taipei, and accompanying it was a pervasive panic that changed ingrained Taiwanese eating and food shopping habits.


Ironically, the first effects of SARS on the food industry here were felt a whole month earlier as tourists and business travellers added Taiwan to their list of Asian destinations to avoid.


Food Taipei 2003 among the victims


Notable among them were the exhibitors of Food Taipei 2003 slated for 11-14 June. Eighty percent of them, when polled by the show’s sponsor, said they were reluctant to attend.


Food Taipei 2003, like other major industry shows held here at this time of year, was cancelled on 7 May, one day before the WHO issued an advisory against non-essential travel to the island.


The Taipei hotels and restaurants that feed and entertain international visitors are hurting.


“Our feedback from the trade is that the impact is significant,” said Paulin, director of the New Zealand Trade Development Centre in Taipei. He estimates the HRI sector is “down by 70-80%.”


“Business is bad,” said Terry Yang, manager of Semean Foods Co., Ltd, an importer of specialty items for hotels and Western restaurants in Taipei. “We offer cheeses and foods that [locals] don’t eat, and the foreign tourists are gone.”


‘Plague logic’ rules the day


Now, as SARS spreads in Taipei, the unsettling sight of empty tables is seen as well at restaurants and streetside eateries frequented by locals.


“SARS, SARS, SARS… there’s nothing else on the news,” said Yang. “Who wants to eat out when they’re hearing about SARS twenty four hours a day?”


Eating out is part of daily life in Taiwan. One expert estimates 23% of all meals are consumed away from home. But the Taiwanese are shunning restaurants to avoid infection.


‘Plague logic’ rules the day, and hardest hit are eateries with ‘high traffic’ or a ‘high linger’ factor.


Topping this list are fastfood chains. On-premise consumption has plummeted, according to local news reports, and those customers that remain are opting for take-out.


Take-out accounted for 70% of KFC’s sales in recent weeks, said Olga Wu, managing director of Yum! Restaurants (Taiwan) Co., Ltd. in an interview with the Taipei Times.


Unprecedented numbers of Taiwanese are eating at home, and even that still requires mingling with crowds while shopping for groceries.


Perceptions of hygienic standards are driving their choice of store, according to Jonathan Gressel, chief of the Agricultural Affairs Section of the American Institute in Taiwan.


Supermarkets among the few beneficiaries


“Supermarkets seem to be seeing an upside because people are turning away from the wet markets,” said Gressel.


Consistent with Gressel’s view, food sales at the island’s two Tesco stores, located in the mid-sized cities of Taoyuan and Tainan, jumped 50% last month.


“There are more customers in the stores than before,” said Sarah Wu, corporate affairs manager, Tesco Stores in Taiwan. “When interviewed in our stores, they tell us that they used to shop for fresh food in the wet markets, but switched.”


‘Miracle-workers’ boom


High on everyone’s shopping lists are bleach and germicidal sprays.


“Sales have jumped five- to ten-fold, and it is hard to keep them in stock,” said Wu. “We have to bring them in in daily lots to keep up [with demand].”


Fresh produce believed beneficial to the immune system is doing particularly well. Wu listed four examples – onions, papaya, pineapples and oranges – the sales of which are 70% above normal. The island’s leading tonic, Brand’s Essence of Chicken, and milk powders saw a 50% boost, and Wu said shoppers are buying them for the nutritional value.


“There has also been a run on barbeque supplies,” she added.


Why?


Wu has a theory. “There are universities near Tesco’s two stores, and we guess that students feel that is safer to get together outdoors than to meet at an indoor [karoke] club,” she said.


This bonanza in food sales is being felt as well at Taiwan’s largest supermarket chain, Wellcome.


“In the first 12 days of May, volume went up 40%, said Howard Tsai, chief operating officer of Wellcome Taiwan Ltd.


Wellcome has 114 stores in Taiwan, and Tsai said business rose dramatically in mid-April.


“[The increase] is across the board for all food products – instant noodles, condiments, snack foods – but especially so for fresh produce.”


Then, too, as at Tesco, there are the unusual and often sudden “spikes” in sales of particular items.


“It could be garlic one day and ‘black’ sugar the next,” he said, depending on what is reported on TV about a food’s supposed anti-SARS benefits. “We put in an urgent order, but we run out [of stock] before it comes in.


“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Tsai.


Has the boom in food sales experienced by Tesco and Wellcome been shared by the rest of the island’s modern retailers?


Apparently so.


Taiwan is in the midst of a retailing revolution, and as of 2000, there were 114 hypermarkets, 1050 supermarkets, and 6357 convenience stores scattered across the island.


But where is all of their new ‘SARS’ business coming from?


Wet markets hit hard


Traditional markets is the answer. Scattered across Taiwan are 631 government-run public ‘wet’ markets. Typically, these are concrete buildings, with air-conditioning but limited refrigeration. Interiors are tiled and at the end of each day, they are hosed down. Then there are 639 street markets were trucks pull up with produce or vendors sell from pushcarts or from traps spread on the ground.


Tsai said that the ‘wet’ market channel accounts for 70% of the sale of fresh food.


That percentage is way down this month as SARS plays on the fears of the Taiwanese consumer.


Our intrepid reporter dons his mask in search of facts…


To get a first hand look, this reporter donned a face mask and visited the key food outlets of Taipei’s suburban Tienmu.


Normally Sunday is a major food shopping day for DINK (double income, no kids) households, but the storefront grills were down on a third of the shops at the Hsihpai street market. Many normally busy stands were covered with tarpaulins. A fruit vendor was open, and when asked if SARS had any impact on her business, she was visibly annoyed.


“Yes,” she said finally.


“Up or down?”


“Down. By half.”


Her only customer suggested she tell me about the run on pineapples, now out of stock, but she was happy to see me go.


At Carrefour, where I’ve shopped for nearly a decade, clerks pressed an electronic gadget to check my temperature before allowing me to enter.


I passed, as did a lot of other people.


Inside everything appeared normal at first, except for the face masks on the shoppers and the grim and determined glint in their eyes. Then, I noticed something odd… no children. Usually there are several in tow behind mom and dad. Another strange phenomenon: When shoppers left the store, they did so in a no-nonsense manner, getting away as quickly as possible. Usually a crowd of shoppers congregates on the sidewalk, rewarding themselves with popcorn or cotton candy.


At the Shi Dong Market – the area’s largest ‘wet’ market – I felt a sense of doom as the doors closed behind me and I breathed in the scent of fresh slaughter.


The sensation was visceral, and stayed with me as I walked the empty aisles.


Then I saw something I had never seen before … a group of idle vendors playing checkers, and another group with their feet up, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.


“How is business,” I asked.


“This is Sunday,” one replied, and nodded toward the empty aisles.


Sorry… dumb question. The man who owned the stall his cohorts had gathered around had half a chicken on his counter.


“This morning they sold out of mung beans…” he said, pointing to a neighbouring stall. “The TV has a little report saying something prevents SARS and everyone comes running.”


Then glancing at the forlorn chicken carcass on his cart, he said, “Write that chicken prevents SARS why don’t you?”

They all laughed.


I went home, took a shower and scrubbed my hands with bleach.