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Despite Regulatory Reform, China’s Food Safety Remains Problematic
by Ted Agres
As scandals and negative publicity involving contaminated and even toxic food continue to plague China, the country’s central and municipal governments have stepped up their efforts to overhaul the country’s largely uncoordinated and often corrupt food regulatory network. Thus far, however, these efforts have not significantly improved the nation’s food safety record. Reports of adulterated food products—and resulting illnesses—continue to appear regularly in Chinese and international media.
The misuse and overuse of hundreds of chemicals, many of them banned and toxic, have led to scores of deaths and the sickness of hundreds of thousands of people throughout China. Examples include Salmonella-tainted seafood, clenbuterol-treated pork, cooking oil recycled from gutters and drains, and antibiotic-laden chicken. In 2007 and 2008, infant formula laced with the industrial chemical melamine killed at least six children and sickened nearly 300,000 others. Western observers and senior Chinese officials believe that these examples highlight the central problem: The drive for productivity and profit continues to outweigh adherence to even basic safety and sanitary measures.
Another Five-Year Plan
In yet another attempt to legislate its way to food safety, China released a new five-year plan to upgrade its food safety regulations in June 2012. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, the government will revamp outdated rules, review and abolish contradicting or overlapping standards, and draft new codes by 2015. There are currently more than 2,000 national food regulations and 2,900 industry-based regulations on the books, many of them overlapping or contradictory.
According to the plan, 14 government departments, including the ministries of health, science and technology, and agriculture, will work to revamp safety standards, with priority given to dairy products, infant food, meat, alcohol, vegetable oil, seasoning, health products, and food additives. “It is an onerous task for the government to ensure food safety,” because China’s food industry still suffers from “nonstandard management and many hidden safety risks,” said a statement released in June 2012 following a State Council executive meeting presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao.
The State Council vowed a “vigorous crackdown” on those who endanger food safety. The government should “enhance supervision by setting up an efficient mechanism that covers all links in the food industry and a rigid food recall system for destroying defective products,” the statement said. Moreover, the government will make “special efforts” to establish standards for testing contaminants, food additives, microorganisms, and pesticide and animal drug residue in food production by 2015.
The misuse and overuse of hundreds of chemicals, many of them banned and toxic, have led to scores of deaths and the sickness of hundreds of thousands of people throughout China.
Not to be outdone, the municipal governments of Beijing and Shanghai announced in late December 2012 that they, too, would revamp food safety regulations. Companies caught producing or selling unsafe foods in Beijing will be banned for life, while employees and executives of companies with food safety problems will be barred from working in the industry for five years. Similarly, in Shanghai, food companies engaging in any of 11 harmful practices will be blacklisted and barred from receiving government subsidies or preferential treatment.
Such harmful practices include using banned drugs or other harmful substances during the planting, processing, or transportation of farm products; preparing food from inedible substances or materials; and selling or using banned food additives or recycling food as raw material. The rules for both cities are scheduled to take effect this year.
But many experts remain skeptical about the effectiveness of central government reforms, because such pronouncements often are not put into practice, and the inspectors who oversee farmers and food processors are often rewarded by the quantity of food produced and not necessarily its quality.
For example, following the melamine scandal, China established a new cabinet-level food safety commission and enacted comprehensive food safety legislation in 2009. The new law created national standards to replace a fragmented patchwork of regulations overseen by myriad government agencies. But not much changed, and in April 2011, the central government ordered additional crackdowns on food safety offenders. The recurring problems—and new scandals—demonstrate the ineffectiveness of commissions and decrees.
“There’s evidence only of slow progress by the central government in trying to bring together the various agencies involved in food safety and in establishing coherent regulations,” said Stanley Lubman, a China law specialist at the University of California Berkeley School of Law and author of several books on legal reforms in China. “There has been some necessary progress, but how quickly that will be translated into action is an open question,” he told Food Quality magazine.
A Sprawling Problem
In China, several thousand modern, large-scale multinational and joint-venture companies and farms employ modern equipment and follow best food safety practices. Alongside them are 280 million small, independent farms, each less than two acres in size, raising animals and crops. There are also 10 million registered food-related businesses, including 480,000 licensed food processing enterprises, 80 percent 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.
More than 70 percent of the apple juice concentrate, nearly 80 percent of the tilapia, and more than 40 percent of processed mushrooms in the U.S. are imported from China. Catching tainted products before they enter the U.S. food system has proved nearly impossible, with FDA inspectors examining less than two percent of all imported food items. The handful of FDA officials stationed in China conducted only 13 food inspections between June 2009 and June 2010. By 2011, the number of inspections had increased to 85, FDA said in relating the “progress” it had made in bilateral relations.
In December 2012, the FDA and China’s General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine (AQSIQ) renewed a formal cooperation agreement for five more years. According to the FDA, the agreement enhances the agency’s ability to identify high-risk food products entering the U.S. from China, especially canned and acidified foods, pet food, and aquaculture; allows for collaboration to facilitate inspections of food facilities in China; and creates processes for the FDA to accept “relevant, verified information” from the AQSIQ regarding registration and information.
Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, told attendees at a food expo in Shanghai in November 2012 that consumer confidence is “an important goal in its own right.”
There are currently more than 2,000 national food regulations and 2,900 industry-based regulations on the books, many of them overlapping or contradictory.
“Most consumers understand that food is not risk-free,” Taylor said at the China International Food Safety and Quality Conference and Expo. “They are not asking for the impossible. But they do expect that everyone involved in producing, processing, transporting, and marketing food is doing what they reasonably can to prevent problems and make food safe.”
Consumers in China generally lack this confidence. Public opinion polls continue to show that ordinary Chinese citizens widely mistrust domestically grown food and prefer to purchase imported products if they can afford them and grow their own whenever they can. Many urban residents, especially young people between 25 and 35 living in major cities such as Beijing, are growing vegetables and herbs on their balconies or in rented farmland in the suburbs, according to a report in the China Daily.
“When we go to China, the Chinese people we meet are extremely concerned about food safety problems,” said the University of California’s Dr. Lubman. Indeed, food safety is the greatest concern even among consumers living in second- to fourth-tier (mid-sized to small) cities, according to a recent poll conducted by Ogilvy & Mather, a leading advertising, marketing, and public relations firm.
“These fears are based on the residents’ own experiences, amplified by the rapid sharing of experiences through the Internet,” said Shenan Chuang, chief executive of O&M Greater China. Some local brands are tapping into this anxiety by marketing their products as “natural” or “ecologically safe,” she added. While many consumers remain skeptical of such claims, the situation provides an opportunity for outside companies looking to break into potentially lucrative Chinese markets.
The food safety problems have also affected U.S.-owned companies such as Yum Brands Inc. (KFC) and McDonald’s Corp., which supply their restaurants in China with domestically grown products. Last year, state-run media reported that some KFC chicken contained unapproved levels of antibiotics and hormones used to accelerate growth. Yum stopped sourcing from two Chinese poultry suppliers as a result.
But Wang Guowei, head of the policy and legislation department at China’s State Council Food Safety Commission, said that reports of food safety problems in his country are overblown.
“The problems aren’t so bad that you should be scared to eat,” Wang told Chinadialogue.net, an online news site that focuses on environmental and other issues. Nevertheless, he acknowledged a “mismatch” between regulatory powers and obligations, including a lack of resources and enforcement authority.
“We must learn from international practices,” Wang said. “We need to use national food safety standards to monitor, evaluate, and provide early warning of risks.…We need to be scientific and professional. Currently we are very weak in this area.”
Ted Agres is based in Laurel, Md. Reach him at email@example.com.