Taking China’s Food Safety Problem Seriously (I)

By Ching-Fu Lin

Why should we be concerned about China’s food safety problem?  A recent opinion by Adam Minter on Bloomberg offers yet another tough criticism on China’s food system: “For more than a decade, China has earned a reputation as one of the world’s worst food-safety offenders.”  Melamine-tainted milk, rat meat sold as lambrecycled “gutter oil” for cooking, and most recently, juice made from rotten fruit, Chinese food producers never cease to surprise us with their “creativity” in economic adulteration.  The Chinese government, however, has failed to establish an effective regulatory system beyond executing violators and political campaigns.  The Chinese consumers continue to react with desperation to these endless food safety crises, smuggling bunks of infant formula from Hong Kong and other countries.

But why should we care?

According to testimony before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May, food products of Chinese origin have dominated the U.S. food market in areas such as tilapia (77.5%), apple juice (65.2%), cod (52.7%), processed mushrooms (34.1%), garlic (27.4%), clams (16.1%), frozen spinach (16.0%), and salmon (12.7%).  The Chinese food imports are also expected to increase by about 10% annually until 2020.  Faced with the huge volumes of foods imported into the US every year, the Food and Drug Administration has only been able to inspect about 2.3% of the total imports from China in 2011 (which is, well, an improvement compared to 1.3% in 2007). Moreover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last month that China’s poultry processing inspection system is equivalent to its US counterpart.  That is, processed chicken from China is determined as meeting US food safety standards (even if there are no on-site USDA inspectors in the processing facilities) and granted it access to the US market.

In an interdependent world trading system, regulatory failure in one country can spill over to many others, resulting in adverse public health repercussions in the latter country.  We should take China’s food safety problem seriously.

Stanley Lubman, a specialist on Chinese law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law – while examining the bilateral food safety agreement signed by the US and China in 2007 – emphasized that more needs to be done.  Examples of more protection of US consumers include increasing border inspections and “funding Chinese NGOs that focus on improving food safety in China… to force better enforcement of food safety laws.”  Dan Flynn, a food safety expert and Editor in Chief of Food Safety News, also highlighted the US stake in China’s food safety problem, for “the US-China relationship has been based on economic interests,” rather than public health.  However, while showing confidence in China’s technical competence in establishing an effective food safety regulatory system, Flynn points out that China’s closed political system which lacks transparency is key to reform.  However, both seem to miss the big picture here.

China’s food safety problem is much more complex, because it intertwines with China’s regulatory design, political institution, food industry structure and development, rule of law deficit, and corruption problems, to name a few.  [Continued in Part II]

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