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Eye on China
Despite some promising signals, government and regulators struggle to ensure quality of that nation’s exported food
by Ted Agres
Glow-in-the-dark pork. Exploding watermelons. These recent oddities from China might seem comical were it not for the country’s abysmal food safety record, which includes deaths and illnesses caused by melamine-laced baby formula, Salmonella-tainted seafood, and clenbuterol-treated pork.
China’s sprawling system of food production is largely unregulated, operating in a Wild West environment in which the drive for productivity and profit outweighs adherence to even the most basic safety and sanitary measures, according to Western experts and senior Chinese officials.
The misuse and overuse of hundreds of chemicals, many of them banned and toxic, have led to death for scores and sickness in hundreds of thousands of people throughout China. Recent opinion polls reveal that a majority of ordinary citizens mistrust their nation’s food suppliers and processors. Those who can, grow their own food. The situation has become a matter of grave concern—and embarrassment—for China’s leaders, who have pledged to severely punish violators, reward whistleblowers, and restructure oversight of the nation’s food safety system.
But many experts remain skeptical of these promised reforms, because it is common for central government pronouncements never to be put into practice, and the local officials who oversee farmers and processors are evaluated and rewarded based on the quantity of food produced, not necessarily its quality. “There is often a serious disconnect between laws and policies issued by the central government and the level of enforcement and implementation put into effect by the local governments,” said Stanley Lubman, China law specialist at the University of California Berkeley School of Law and author of several books on legal reforms in China. “It’s a longstanding, systemic, structural problem.”
The problem affects not only China but also the United States and other countries that import Chinese-grown and processed food. China is the world’s leading seafood producer and one of the world’s largest exporters of fruits, vegetables, and processed foods and ingredients. Over the past decade, exports of Chinese food products to the U.S. have tripled to nearly four billion pounds, worth $5 billion. In 2009, China supplied 70% of the apple juice concentrate, 78% of the tilapia, and 43% of the processed mushrooms that Americans consumed. Excessive levels of arsenic and other toxic metals have been found in U.S. apple juice made from Chinese concentrate. At least one-third of the honey consumed in the U.S. is smuggled in from China and is likely tainted with illegal antibiotics, lead, and other heavy metals. Banned drugs, including human birth control pills and excessive and illegal antibiotics, have shown up in farmed fish exports.
Catching tainted products before they enter the U.S. food system is nearly impossible: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors examine less than 2% of all imported food items, and the handful of FDA officials stationed in China conducted only 13 food inspections between June 2009 and June 2010. “Our next safety scare could come compliments of China,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit public interest research group in Washington, D.C. “Given how pervasive poorly regulated Chinese food exports are in our food supply, the FDA has a responsibility to focus its attention on imported foods,” Hauter said in a June report on China food safety.
Catching tainted products before they enter the U.S. food system is nearly impossible: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors examine less than 2% of all imported food items, and the handful of FDA officials stationed in China conducted only 13 food inspections between June 2009 and June 2010.
Best and Worst Practices
In China, several thousand modern, large-scale, multinational, and joint venture companies and farms employ modern equipment and follow best food safety practices. Alongside these model industries exist 200 million small, independent farms, each less than two acres in size, raising animals and crops. There are also 480,000 licensed food processing enterprises, 80% of which employ 10 or fewer workers. These small growers, processors, and merchants rely on crude equipment and techniques and often ignore basic standards and proper practices.
“Some producers and merchants in China’s highly competitive [food supply] market cut corners, add toxic substances, or skimp on safety controls to fatten razor-thin profit margins or gain some other competitive edge,” concluded a July 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
Ever since the Cultural Revolution, China’s Communist leaders have emphasized agricultural self-sufficiency—the domestic production of food sufficient to feed its burgeoning population. As a result, meeting ever-increasing food production quotas has been a vital responsibility for farmers and processors. The system fostered a disregard, or at least benign neglect, of public health and safety. “Just as we have enough to feed ourselves, we have this food safety problem,” Vice Premier Wang Qishan told a meeting of legislators in March, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. “This is really embarrassing for us.”
China formed a new Cabinet-level food safety commission and enacted comprehensive legislation in 2009 following the melamine baby formula scandal that killed at least six infants and sickened 300,000 in 2007 and 2008 (see sidebar). The new law created national standards to replace a fragmented patchwork of regulations overseen by myriad government agencies. This past April, the central government ordered a crackdown on food safety offenders. After just three months, authorities reported that they had inspected 5.92 million food businesses, arrested about 2,000 suspects, and shut down more than 4,900 operations for illegal practices. It is unclear how effective or durable this effort will be. “If the pressure continues, well and good,” said UC Berkeley’s Lubman. “But too many campaigns just fizzle out.”
Source: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.
In a June report to the National People’s Congress, Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee Lu Yongxiang said that although the 2009 law had been somewhat successful, more needed to be done. He pointed to an overall lack of knowledge about the law, faulted local agencies for lax oversight, and urged the public and media to report food outbreaks more quickly. Following this, China’s Supreme Court ordered judges nationwide to hand down harsher sentences, including the death penalty, for food safety violators. (This runs counter to recent Chinese efforts to reduce the number of death sentences.) The central government also instructed local governments to reward and protect whistleblowers who provide useful information on food safety violators and encouraged media outlets to investigate and report wrongdoing.
Among the reform efforts, the government’s encouragement of whistle-blowing and public reporting may best reflect China’s seriousness. Prior to this, government authorities had muzzled any publication or website that attempted to publicize food safety problems. Citizens who organized petitions or sought greater accountability and restitution for damages found themselves blacklisted, imprisoned, or both. For example, Zhao Lianhai, a former food safety worker, was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison in 2010 for “disturbing the social order.” His son had been among those sickened by melamine in 2008, and Zhao led a citizens’ campaign seeking greater restitution and medical treatment from the government. He was granted a medical parole last December.
Also, in September, the Ministry of Industry announced plans to create a “Food Industry Credit System,” a nationwide public information platform to collect and disseminate information about food producers. The ministry will list companies that are “trustworthy” and those that are not. While participation is voluntary for most companies, those involved in manufacturing infant milk powder will be required to supply information.
Of course, whether these and other reform efforts will correct the long-standing and endemic problems remains to be seen. As He Wensheng, associate professor at the Lanzhou University School of Management in northwest Gansu province, put it, “The government has been filling the loopholes, but there’s a long way to go to win the food safety war.” n
Agres, a frequent writer for Food Quality, is based in Laurel, Md. Reach him at email@example.com.