Why Can’t China Make Its Food Safe?—Or Can It?

A ChinaFile Conversation

The month my wife and I moved to Beijing in 2004, I saw a bag of oatmeal at our local grocery store prominently labeled: “NOT POLLUTED!” How funny that this would be a selling point, we thought.

But 7 years later as we prepared to return to the US, what was once a joke had become a useful market signal and part of an arsenal of strategies we hoped would limit the risks of encountering tainted food. We ate less fish, which might be raised in polluted waters. We bought vegetables and fruit at Jia Le Fu (Carrefour) or Wo Er Ma (Wal-Mart) on the theory that international brands might have stronger quality controls. We never drank water from the tap, boiled or not. But recent news of problems at Wal-mart, Nongfu Springs (a bottled water company), and a host of other places suggests just how unreliable our strategies might have been.

Media reports last week that 63 people had been arrested for selling fake lamb made out of rat meat were both shocking and utterly unsurprising. How bad had things gotten? In Nanjing (where I am traveling for work), a local news show interviewed a street vendor who confessed to selling fake lamb made from fox meat. “But no,” he said, “I would NEVER sell rat meat.” Fraud is so well developed that there are moral hierarchies within the world of tricksters and charlatans.

Even our heroes have been implicated. In Ruby Yang’s excellent Oscar-nominated environmental documentary, Warriors of Qiugang, the protagonist – a farmer who fights an ultimately successful battle to halt cancer-inducing pollution from a local chemical plant – tells the camera in passing that he has sold tainted rice into the market because “what else could I do…”

As I write this, I have just left Nanjing’s gleaming, new train station on a Chinese bullet train that is slicing its way through the lush green rice fields of Jiangsu Province at 307 km/h (about 185 miles/h). China, as we know, has been remarkably adept at building up the hardware to support its economic miracle.

But its software (regulatory, legal, moral, ethical) for managing the ever-growing risks in a rapidly changing society remains woefully inadequate. Perhaps this is just a symptom of China’s current stage of development, and solutions are only a matter of time. That is what some people say, anyway.


Some background: The PRC’s first Food Hygiene Law emerged in 1982.  Since then, China has amended that law, currently called the Food Safety Law, twice, and an increasingly complex body of regulation has grown up around it. Now, China uses not only coercive sanctions, such as criminal prosecutions and seizures, but it also is employing many preventative measures, especially risk-based monitoring and assessment of additives and illnesses, standards, and good manufacturing practices.

China has also restructured its food regulatory agencies, in the past, and very recently in March to improve the situation.  These agencies seek comment on technical standards from experts and from the public at large.  The agencies have also created websites and “food safety nets,” which release some limited information on food dangers. All of these measures are common to food safety regulatory systems around the world. The question is not just whether the threat of enforcement is going to punish bad behavior, but also whether the institutional arrangement and its reputation and interaction with society convince the many small, and some large, food producers and manufacturers that sufficient benefits to compliance exist.

All of this is to say that I think many Chinese officials are trying to solve these problems.  But it is going to take a good deal of time to bring these issues under control.  To give some perspective, recently it wasn’t unusual to see the statistic that there were 48 million cases of food-borne illness per year in the U.S.  These are not unusual problems.  But China could be doing more to speed the process along.  Transparency could be much better, releasing figures not only on what is not working but also more data on what programs are working. 

You have to marvel at the ingenuity and enterprise of food adulteration in China: can it really be more economic to get rat meat to mimic mutton than just to raise a sheep? But bearing in mind that I come from a country that only recently discovered that some of its major brands’ “value” beef burgers were at least partly horse, an animal that the Brits, perhaps irrationally, don’t want to encounter on a plate, I think we have to recognise that China is not entirely alone in this.

In Britain, the industrial revolution, with its separation of food production from consumption, also brought a host of appalling food adulteration that took some time to regulate effectively. In the early 1980s in Spain, a still unexplained episode involving fake olive oil left scores of people with permanent neurological damage. In the West we have a whole separate set of problems around food: maximum returns come not from selling fresh, perishable produce but from processing: hence additives, sugar, salt, colourings and the obesity epidemic.

All that said, the sophistication of Chinese adulteration is impressive. Much of it demands a fairly high degree of technical knowledge, which suggests a certain professionalism, though not a high level of ethics. To pick only a few examples, it is unlikely that it was the dairy farmers who had the idea of putting melamine in milk to mimic high protein levels, the episode that left hundreds of babies with damaged kidneys. Experts whom chinadialogue spoke to said it required familiarity with the Kjeldahl method, used in milk testing to determine nitrogen content, as well as knowledge of the protein content and chemical properties of several additives -- not something you would expect to find on the average farm. Then there were bean sprouts that had benefitted from the application of a hormone that made them grow faster and without roots. They sold very well, but long-term consumption could have caused cancer. So who was the expert on hormones? If you can bear to read it, chinadialogue has a downloadable report on these and other scandals, and the struggles of the authorities to track down what is really in China’s food.

With this level of technical ingenuity in the adulteration, there are two problems: it is genuinely difficult for the inspectors to keep up. And, as in other areas, it is not clear that they always want to. It is no surprise that the implementation of the regulations that John Balzano describes is, to put it kindly, unreliable. It is a well worn cliche in China that, however good the rules, they are rarely applied as they should be. In recent weeks we have had scandals over pollutant scrubbers in power station chimneys being switched off to save money, illegal discharge of untreated waste water, fake Environmental Impact Assessments, not to mention misleading air quality data. In all these cases, inspectors are either discouraged from doing their job or too thin on the ground to make any difference—and of course, the same authorities who mandate the inspection often have a financial stake in the factories.

Finally, as with environmental pollution, food safety destroys any trust that citizens might still have in their government. So mistrustful have they become that Chinese travelers abroad now routinely head to the supermarket instead of the fashion store and British supermarkets have had to ration the purchase of baby milk because enterprising Chinese were buying in bulk and shipping it back home at a profit. Citizens who no longer trust the assurances of the authorities are taking their own initiatives: check out this story about about the Fudan University student whose “wikipedia” of food safety crashed after receiving 25.000 hits in in two hours. All these citizens’ initiatives are creating real alternative sources of information and creating transparency through direct action. With transparency comes more pressure: the government either has to clean up the mess or resort to ever more censorship, thus escalating the loss of trust.

One of the most positive developments for China’s food safety situation over the last few years, and the reason that we are so much more aware of these stomach-turning problems, is that the government has loosened its grip on the news media when it comes to tainted food reporting. Though far from being a free press, Chinese media now plays a much bigger food safety watchdog role than it did ten years ago. As a result, problems come to light more quickly and the government is pressured to respond. The reporting also lets consumers protest with their pocketbooks. The shift clearly came after the tainted milk scandal of 2008—a major turning point that really woke the public and government up to the scale of the problem with shoddy and adulterated food. Apart from giving the media a freer hand to report on food scandals, the government response, as John Balzano observed above, was also to stiffen penalties, reshuffle the agencies in charge of food and drug safety and update related laws and regulations.

Some of the biggest lingering problems are that enforcement and punishment remain lax—and also that civil society is not yet being allowed to play a meaningful role in policing the food supply. There’s tremendous potential for grassroots consumer activism, as Isabel Hilton mentioned. When Olivier De Schutter, the Human Rights Council’s independent expert on the right to food, visited China this was one of the things he highlighted. He urged Beijing to let free expression play a bigger role in defending the public’s right to safe food. Zhao Lianhai, the father of one of the kids sickened by tainted milk powder, was jailed for his activism and other parents were threatened and harassed. What these parents sought was better compensation and a promise from the government that it would help deal with any long-term health effects of melamine-tainted milk on sickened children. People who’ve tried to do independent testing and online reporting of pesticide levels or other contaminants in store-bought food have also run afoul of the government, which sees them as meddling. Last year, I wrote for the Associated Press about this guy in Shanghai who developed an iPhone APP that could help people track food safety scandals. It was kind of gimmicky and essentially an aggregator of already-published reports, but its popularity shows that Chinese people want to be educated and are ready to take food safety into their own hands. The government should let them do more of that.

Just to offer a bit on these points, the postings above and below raise various methods of non-legal regulation of the food safety issue.  As I see it, the media in China and sites like Throw it Out the Window play an important role in publicizing the problems and naming the wrongdoers. However, very few consumer organizations have emerged like, for example, Consumer Reports here in the U.S., to do their own studies and challenge government policies or determinations of risk. Not only consumer organizations, but industry associations and scientific associations can aid in the regulatory process. Indeed, these organizations have internal ethics codes and standards of behavior that supplement law and ensure a certain level of integrity. I would be interested in hearing if anyone is aware of progress in China on this front, particularly in terms of reform of the state-approved industry associations.

As for trust declining generally in society and fraud rising, this is something that various nations struggle with. Much has been said about it in the U.S. as well. Some will remember, China Daily recently ran a story that social trust in China has dipped to an all-time low. Again, nothing new here, but I would be interested in hearing views on what can be done about these problems in the food safety context in China.

On the issue of criminal prosecutions being an adequate deterrent: The food safety amendment to China’s Criminal Law was in 2011, and there has been a spike in prosecutions generally since that time. But here is where we need to see more public, in depth methodological assessments by an agency or an outside group about whether and why implementation of a particular policy or is or is not working.  Is anyone aware of data on this point?

On the trust issue, or why Chinese food producers cheat: Some people argue that China’s food safety problems are born of ignorance (“the farmers feed their bees chloramphenicol/pigs clenbuterol because unscrupulous vendors sell it to them promising healthy bees/lean pigs … they don't even know what it is”), while others say poverty (“profit margins for a Chinese farmer are so razor-thin, they can't afford not to rip off the customer … if they don't water down their milk/inject their pork with water, they’d go out of business”), and while there’s some truth to both of these, ultimately they are excuses. Farmers know better and consumers will pay a premium for quality.

But, as Isabel pointed out, the nationalization of China’s food market has separated the producers from their customers and given them a buffer zone that makes it just that much easier to cheat. Clear, well-enforced penalties should help but it’s perhaps too early to tell how effective the new regulations will be. (John, I am not aware of any good, outside data on enforcement.)

Back to consumer purchasing power: Chinese farmers are learning that urban elites are willing to pay a premium for quality and this has spurred the growth of the organic industry. While there’s plenty of corruption or false labeling in that sector, nurturing and valuing best practices hopefully will help revive pride in farm work and respect for farmers. The multi-part CCTV documentary ‘Bite of China’ reminded many Chinese of the country’s incredible food traditions and showed them there still are some principled food artisans out there, making tofu or sausages and harvesting mushrooms with care. More should be done to foster and encourage that kind of pride. It would be nice to see a mainland version of ‘Eat Drink Man Woman’ or ‘Tampopo.’ China's due for a good film like that.   

I’d just like to answer this question posed by a reader below:

”On a related note, one of the underlying points here is that despite the severity of government-sanctioned punishment, violations remain widespread. We'd be curious to hear perspectives on why these are not effective deterrents.”

One of the complaints you hear in Chinese media circles is that if the authorities went after manufacturers of substandard and poisonous food with the same enthusiasm and attention to detail that they bring to monitoring the media and the Internet and clamping down on certain kinds of public discussion, the food safety problem could be solved overnight. Whereas there is a nationwide, well resourced, multi-layered system of censorship that ensures no newspaper or website in the whole country can get away with ideological impurities or printing news that may contain ‘spiritual pollution,’ there does not seem to be the same commitment to supervising the purity and safety of food.

All the laws in the world about food quality cannot make up for lax enforcement, or the corruption that many Chinese people assume is the reason the poisoners and adulterators of food seem to get away scot free.