Over the past two decades, China has been plagued by scores of food scandals, ranging from the lethal (intentional adulteration of infant milk formula) to the bizarre (exploding watermelons and glow-in-the-dark pork). Now, with more than 70 percent of its population expressing serious concerns about the safety of the food supply, authorities in China have become more serious about improving the situation, both on paper as well as in practice. These changes will affect U.S. and other companies that export food products to China.
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In April 2015, Chinese lawmakers published tough new amendments to the nation’s Food Safety Law, which went into effect on Oct. 1, 2015. The amendments impose “the heaviest civil, administrative, and criminal penalties yet for offenders and their supervisors,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported. In addition to heavy civil and criminal punishments, company officials found guilty of violating the law face restrictions on “loans, taxation, bidding, and land use.” Large rewards will be offered to consumer and industry whistleblowers; trials of selected “notorious” food crimes will be broadcast live; and provincial police departments are establishing food safety units to specialize in combatting food crime.
While the amendments focus on domestic Chinese food producers and distributors, they will also impact companies in the U.S. and elsewhere that export food or food products to China. For example, at least once every three years, Chinese food importers must conduct onsite audits of facilities outside of China that export meat products, health foods, and infant formula. The inspections may be conducted by accredited third-party auditors. The amendments also address import inspections at ports of entry by risk levels and food labeling and claims.
The amendments are broadly worded and build on the nation’s existing food safety framework. Since April, government agencies have been issuing regulations and national food safety standards designed to implement the new food safety amendments, and interested stakeholders had been invited to comment. The process is ongoing.
While China is notorious for enacting laws and regulations that are largely ignored or only selectively enforced, this time things may be different. “With passage of the new rules, we should assume the Chinese are taking enforcement more seriously than they used to,” says David Acheson, MD, founder and CEO of The Acheson Group and a former FDA associate commissioner for foods. “But enforcement in China is also jurisdictionally dependent and very much driven by local politics in terms of who gets whacked for what,” Dr. Acheson tells Food Quality & Safety Magazine. “The message for U.S. companies is to be very careful.”
Overhauling the Food Safety Framework
In 2008, domestically produced infant milk formula was found to have been laced with the toxic industrial chemical melamine in order to spike its apparent protein content. At least six infants died and about 290,000 suffered kidney damage and other injuries. At least 11 countries stopped importing Chinese dairy products. In response, the Chinese government ordered criminal prosecutions, which resulted in executions and lengthy jail terms for company executives as well as the sacking of several government officials.
Also in response, the Chinese government in 2009 overhauled the nation’s food safety legal framework and enacted a new Food Safety Law. Under the law, responsibilities for enforcement and oversight were relegated to an alphabet-soup combination of agencies, resulting in overlapping authorities and even conflicting standards. Under the 2009 law, for example, the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) was the primary regulator, while responsibility for food production fell to the General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine (AQSIQ). Food distribution, on the other hand, came under the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, while catering services were overseen by the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA). Making matters more complicated, food recall standards established by AQSIQ differed from those that had been established by the Food Safety Law, in effect at the same time.