A 2011 survey reported that food safety was the most concerned issue in Chinese people, surpassing public security, traffic safety, and medical safety.
-Letter to the Editor, Food Safety Issues in China, Iranian Journal of Public Health
China is currently the most populous country in the world, with a population of over 1.3 billion people. As with any country with a large population, the Chinese people collectively consume large quantities of food.
Despite a rapidly growing economy, various technological advancements, and educational outreach efforts, the country exhibits disproportionate levels of foodborne illness. Individuals who are privy to the country’s food safety efforts cite a number of reasons for this, among them a lack of knowledge pertaining to contamination and the steps for food safety; insufficient hygiene standards; a complex food safety bureaucracy; and a proliferation of food processing practices.
This is an overview of the food safety environment in China, including recent developments that may spearhead efforts to increase food safety oversight in the Asian nation.
Rates of Food Safety Incidents and the Role of the CFDA
Food safety concerns are widespread throughout the nation’s agricultural industry. The main food crops of China include corn, rice, wheat and soybeans, along with apples and other produce. Meat consumption has increased in the country due to rapid industrialization and other factors; primary sources of meat and poultry include beef, dairy, eggs, and pork.
A 2012 analysis of 174 food safety incidents reported that 41.4 percent were caused by toxic animals and plants; 32.8 percent by pathogenic microorganisms; and 12.1 percent by chemical contamination. Rapid industrialization in China is causing concern among the people, with various investigations revealing the use of illegal additives and toxic chemicals in food processing.
Currently, the Chinese government is the sole entity responsible for food safety. The primary governmental food safety body is the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA), which is similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in terms of regulatory authority. The CFDA supervises the safety management of food, health food, and cosmetics, and is the authority of drug regulation in mainland China.
Factors Impacting Food Safety in China
Facing increased global and domestic pressure to address food safety concerns, the government instituted the Food Safety Law of the People’s Republic of China in 2009. The law’s passage was meant to signify a shift in governmental attitudes pertaining to food safety. However, many policy experts and others have criticized the government’s execution of broad food safety measures.
Because China is a Communist country with a “closed-loop” outlook in terms of national affairs, it can be somewhat difficult to gain meaningful insight into stakeholder attitudes pertaining to food safety. However, many who have resided within the country are concerned about China’s poor food safety practices.
The practice of cheap labor is one aspect of Chinese society that the country is well-known for, and one that may correlate with food safety issues. According to the Centre for Research on Globalization, the country is the world’s largest provider of cheap labor in the world. Some researchers estimate that the factory cost of production in China is as low as 10 percent of that of Western countries.
Some researchers assert that the low wages and high productivity of the country’s cheap labor extends to individuals responsible for overseeing that food remains safe throughout the supply chain. This is particularly troubling, researchers note, since those responsible for the food’s production are included. Critics of China’s food safety laws insist that the poor treatment, lack of training, and unsanitary working conditions help contribute to the disproportionate rate of foodborne illness in the country.
Another factor is the sheer scale and complexity of the food industry in China. In letter to the editor published by the Iranian Journal of Public Health and reproduced by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the authors (who are of Chinese origin) cite an evident disconnect between public officials and the country’s large population. Additionally, the authors note a lack of transparency by both government officials and food industries.
The China Food Safety Initiative
In an effort to address increasing global scrutiny, the Chinese government launched the China Food Safety Initiative (CFSI), a collaborative effort “consisting of 40 local and global companies operating in China and their 100-plus representatives.”
To date, CFSI has received praise for its efforts to meet food safety standards, including from the director of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), who states, “GFSI believes that this acknowledgement of Technical Equivalence [a food quality-standard document] will drive adoption of the scheme by more local suppliers, thereby improving the general level of food safety in China.”
A CFSI board member explained the rationale behind the organization’s formation, asserting that “Improving food safety and consumer trust in complex global supply chains requires a glocal [global/local] approach and this parity-based collaboration with Chinese and international companies on the ground within the Chinese context is a must for tackling local challenges.”
Companies represented within CFSI’s ranks include the American companies Walmart, McDonalds, and Hershey. Representatives attending the GFSI “China Focus Day” event cite the unprecedented support from government and those in China’s private sector.