Despite Regulatory Reform, China’s Food Safety Remains Problematic

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 According to the official Xinhua News Agency, the government will revamp outdated rules, review and abolish contradicting or overlapping standards, and draft new codes by 2015.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.

About Ted Agres

Ted Agres covers food safety regulatory and legislative issues from the nation’s capital. He has 40 years of experience in reporting on issues such as health policy, medical technology, and pharmaceutical development. He holds an MBA from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. He enjoys playing the piano, amateur radio, and paintball. He lives in Laurel, MD.

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