“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.
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“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.