“A 2011 survey reported that food safety was the most concerned issue in Chinese people, surpassing public security, traffic safety, medical safety, etc.” – “Food Safety Issues in China,” Iranian Journal of Public Health

food chinaFood safety has evolved from a local, regional and national concern to a global one. Food safety problems affect the public health to such an extent that many think-tanks and other prominent entities consider the issue to be a crisis – maybe even an epidemic.

In countries with large populations, the safe consumption of food is a high-priority issue. China, with its population of nearly 1.4 billion, is no different in this respect. However, as a major player in the global economy, China’s food safety problems extend far beyond its own borders.

This article takes a look a brief look at the history of China’s food safety problems, along with the real and potential impact the issue is having on both a domestic and international scale.

A “Tainted” Past

If a timeline was used to illustrate China’s food safety problems relative to global scrutiny, 2008 would be a good starting point. In an August 2008 meeting between the Fonterra Group – the largest trading company of dairy products in the world – and its Chinese joint venture company, Sanlu Group, executives received some devastating news for which they were unprepared.

The Chinese company’s powdered milk was tainted with melamine, an organic base chemical primarily used in the production of plastic. Because the company was the country’s largest producer of powdered milk, the error ended up sickening hundreds of thousands of infants and children. Six infants were reported to have died due to kidney damage.

Fonterra executives insisted on an immediate recall of the product, but their Chinese partners refused to take such a measure. The Beijing Olympics, at the time just a few days away, is believed to have been the motivation behind this inaction. Eventually, however, word got out around the globe, including to prominent business partners. Meanwhile, domestic consumer confidence in food safety plummeted.

China and Food Safety at Present

Due to intense scrutiny, particularly from the global community, China passed its first comprehensive food safety legislation in 2013. Given the complexity of developing and enacting food safety legislation, it wasn’t until late 2015 that China finalized the revision process. The revised law was officially enacted in October 2015.

china foodPerhaps the most noteworthy outcome of the law was the development of a new governmental body: the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA). The CFDA was given complete authority over the domestic food supply chain and tasked with administering and regulating any and all mechanisms pertaining to food safety.

Given the complex and chaotic nature of China’s food safety system, food safety experts predicted (and continue to predict) problems with implementing the newly-minted legislation. China has committed a number of violations in the past, including producing and selling counterfeit foods; using “illegal” additives; failing to use hygienic codes; and paying food inspectors poverty-level wages, among others.

Indeed, these and other problems appear to be yielding less than desirable results.

The head of the CFDA, Bi Jingquan, gave testimony before the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (China’s top legislative body). There, he stated that nearly 500,000 food safety violations were cited in the first nine months of 2016.

According to Bi, Chinese food safety departments administered more than 15 million individual food inspections. Among the nearly half-million offenses: sale of counterfeit products, false advertising, sale of contaminated food products and ingredients, and more. Some of the more serious offenses cited involved the use of hazardous additives in the production process.

The Long Road Ahead

Depending upon one’s point of view, China’s efforts to improve food safety can be viewed in any number of ways. Anecdotal evidence exists to support a number of these opinions. However, for those interested in measurable progress, anecdotal accounts don’t matter much.

Many food safety experts and others (e.g. economists, politicians) concede that China’s progress in the food safety arena carries a number of global implications. These include stabilizing consumer confidence; maintaining mutual business partnerships; increasing economic activity (e.g. GDP); gaining the public’s trust in government; and improving global confidence in the food supply, among others.

In an article focusing on food safety issues in China, three food scientists succinctly conclude:

“Considering the huge scale and complex situation of food industry in China, there are no shortcuts to resolving the country’s food safety issues. Only through the joint efforts and collaborations of government food industry and consumer, can China’s food safety get gradual and healthy development.”