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.
You Might Also Like
Explore This IssueFebruary/March 2013
Also By This Author
“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.