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 lamb, recycled “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.