Food safety scandals have become so common in China that people are losing confidence in what they eat. The government has consistently emphasized the need for better regulation of the food industry, and it’s established an inter-ministerial committee under the State Council to pursue that goal. But so far little progress has been achieved.
Zhi Shuping, head of the government’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine, said during the Boao Forum for Asia in March that more than 99 percent of the food exported from China meets all standards for safety and quality. Such an apparent gap in quality between what’s produced for the domestic and foreign markets has led to public discontent.
So why are food safety problems so much more likely to occur in China than in other countries? The situation can be blamed on the combined effects of the country’s food supply system and characteristics of the agriculture industry as a whole.
You won’t need to be in China long before you see something in a restaurant that makes you recoil—like watching your surly waitress at a local Hunan joint methodically singe off her forearm hairs with a lighter as you eat. And it’s only a matter of time before you eat something that wrings your insides out for days on end, particularly during the hot, sultry Shanghai summers when foodborne illness seems to strike most often.
A number of food scandals in China have made international headlines in recent years, raising concerns around the world about the global food supply. But no one is more scared than the Chinese themselves.
Food safety is “still the number-one concern on consumers’ minds,” says Andrew Kuiler of The Silk Initiative, a food and beverage consultancy based in Shanghai. “Along with manufacturer’s reputations, it’s more important than fancy ads and packaging—the one thing they’re looking for. The Chinese consumer is becoming very savvy and very suspicious.”
The government also needs to encourage farmers to form associations and sell through those associations. This practice would likely raise their profits, build brand awareness and help farmers supervise each other’s operations. Moreover, the government needs to establish strict regulations for retailers and punish violators severely. That means shutting them down if necessary and pursuing legal action against company executives when food safety regulations are violated. This will provide incentives for companies to extend quality control systems all the way to suppliers.
Last but not least, the central government should set up a public platform that accepts food safety problem reports. Through a system of this kind, local governments and the big companies they support could not dodge responsibility. These measures, however, would probably increase operating costs for farmers and companies. These extra costs would be passed on to consumers. That is the unfortunate reality of economics. You cannot have it both ways.
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