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Food Safety in China: A Menu for Change

November 19, 2008 // 11:00am12:15pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
China Environment Forum

On November 19th, 2008 Wilson Center on the Hill, in conjunction with the China Environment Forum, hosted a seminar highlighting a recent publication, Sowing the Seeds: Opportunities for U.S.-China Cooperation on Food Safety. The discussion featured Jennifer Turner, Director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Paul Young, Senior Manager for Chemical Analysis Operations at the Waters Corporation and Jeanne Ireland, Chief Public Health Advisor with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Jennifer Turner began by noting that issues of food safety in China are not new, but recent events – such as the incidents of melamine contamination of infant formula – have made the world more aware of the problems. Some of these issues have developed from the dual food system in China. Generally speaking, urban and export-bound food products are safer than food products bound for rural areas in China, which often are lower quality and not subject to equally strict safety regulation. She also indicated that this dual food safety system might cause further issues in the future, even potentially undermining the safety of food exports altogether.

Turner then went on to explain several factors which make food safety regulation in China very difficult:

• Governance issues – The decentralization of power to local government authorities, along with issues of overlapping responsibilities and other coordination problems between different levels of government, makes creating a holistic framework for food regulation very challenging. However, Beijing officials have been prioritizing the food safety issue recently, as they recognize that continued problems could lead to unrest in rural areas.

• Reliance on top-down enforcement – The central government's attempts to use command and control strategies and campaigns to improve food safety regulation have largely failed due to the large size and fragmentation of the food production and processing sectors. Furthermore, the overall power decentralization in China (as noted above) means that the Beijing is less powerful than many outsiders imagine.

• Industry fragmentation and transparency challenges – Both the agriculture and food processing industries are very fragmented in China. Moreover, these sectors are predominantly cash-based, which makes it highly difficult to establish a system for tracing the origin and distribution of food products. Producer education – Often food processors do not know exactly what may be going into some of their products, either because they have been lied to by their suppliers or they simply don't know which chemicals are harmful.

• No media oversight – When food scandals do occur, the public often goes unaware due to the lack of independent media sources in the country.

• Underdeveloped civil society – While environmental nongovernmental organizations have thrived in China, there are few independent consumer groups that can serve as viable grassroots watchdogs in the food safety sector.

Turner then examined possible solutions to the regulation challenges. First, she cited the government's top-down and extremely invasive approach taken during the Olympics. During this period, the federal government attempted to implement a system of documenting the origins of each ingredient in all food types. While this succeeded in avoiding any major food safety issues during the Olympics, the tracking system caused food prices to rise and was not seen as sustainable on a large scale over an extended period of time. Turner suggested that, rather than continuing this approach, China should work to strengthen its legal system and NGOs, emphasize consumer education, and seek to consolidate their processing industries.

Turner then asked Paul Young to elaborate on potential solutions to the issue of food safety regulation in China. Specifically, she asked him whether a recent program implemented in India in order to ensure the safety of table grapes could serve as a model for China. Mr. Young noted that the Indian system had used a positive certification scheme which tested for pesticide levels during growing. He mentioned that the system was good, but inefficient, and while it might be a good piece of a larger scheme for China, it was not the best solution.

Rather, Young suggested that China should focus foremost on educating producers. He asserted that close to 40% of all pesticides sold in China are counterfeit, so producers often do not know what they are putting into their crops. He also suggested that China should focus on technology in order to build a comprehensive scheme to ensure the safety of exports. Otherwise, they will inevitably focus on regulating only portions of their exports. He also emphasized that America should actively work with the Chinese in order to help them make sure that standards are being met.

The discussion was then turned over to Jeanne Ireland, who provided a legislative perspective on the issue of food safety. She mentioned that in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs to go through reforms in order to be able to assure food safety in the U.S. in the context of a global market. She then described recent activity in the House and the Senate that has examined FDA reforms. The bills that have been introduced have generally placed a strong emphasis on prevention; seeking to make food safety a higher priority than it is today with greater governmental resources allotted to address the problem. She noted that there is growing interest in using third parties to certify the safety of imports, that enforcement authorities are "ancient," and that the House Committee on Energy and Commerce will begin working on this issue early in the 111th Congress.

At this point the floor was opened for questions. The first inquiry related to the coordination of a global food safety system, since many countries and regions have their own regulations and standards. Paul Young noted that this problem is a major challenge that will not be addressed easily, but rather it will require the cooperation of countries across the board. The next questioner asked Jeanne Ireland if the types of bills being considered by Congress only addressed international food safety issues. She remarked that they also addressed domestic concerns. Next, an audience member noted that Chinese importers often find problems with food safety in products coming from America and that one should not see this issue as a one-way process. The final question was about how to respond to the accusation that food safety regulation acts as a non-transparent trade barrier. Jeanne Ireland remarked that the process of regulation needs to be moved further toward the point of supply. This change would help both to undercut such accusations and to make the importing process smoother.

Drafted by Andrew Polk, STAGE Program
Kent Hughes, Director, STAGE Program

 

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