Chinese-made goods have come under intense scrutiny in recent months. They have been banned or recalled in the US and in a growing number of other countries. Problems have ranged from potentially dangerous levels of toxins or chemicals in seafood to poisonous toothpaste ingredients and tainted dog food.
There can be no doubt that there are problems with food safety supervision in China. This has been recognized by the Government and progress has already been made in addressing concerns following a spate of recent food safety scares. Looking at such issues across the whole of China for both domestic and export consumers is no small task. It involves the interplay of such factors as regulatory and supervisory systems, environmental pollution, and even trade barriers.
US seafood controls
China's colossal surplus in bi-lateral seafood trade has led to tensions with the US and seafood imports have become the target of trade protectionism.
On June 28 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a series of warning reports. These banned Chinese farm-raised seafood imports unless the suppliers provided proof that the shipments were free from harmful residues.
Between October 2006 and May 2007, the FDA had already broadened import controls on all farm-raised seafood products from China. Imports of catfish, bass, eel, shrimp and dace were particularly affected. It reported repeatedly finding farm-raised seafood with the unapproved antimicrobial agents nitrofuran (cancer-causing) and malachite green.
In an age of globalization, this food safety issue can be traced all the way back to farmers like Lu Yuguang. Lu and his wife run a shrimp farm in Qingdao, a coastal city in Shandong Province. Each year, wholesalers purchase his prawns, zebra lobsters and crabs. It seems they were still in the dark concerning the FDA reports on the safety of Chinese seafood.
A reporter with the China Newsweek told him about the reports of shrimps affected by residues. But he remained skeptical and defended the safety of his shrimps, "I use saltwater and boiled fingerlings to feed my shrimps. Even if the fingerlings are contaminated, boiling will kill any harmful microorganisms." An acceptable explanation? Well perhaps not when the tests are sensitive and nitrofuran and malachite can be found in the Yellow Sea where the fingerlings originated.
Japan's positive list
Japan brought in a positive list system on May 29, 2006. This requires the examination of food products for agricultural chemical residues originating from pesticides, veterinary medicines, and livestock feed additives.
The standards are rigorous and have put a damper on certain Chinese exports to Japan. Eel production, the single largest category, has been hit especially hard. What's more, the Japanese food administration has further clamped down on imported eels from China by adding additional tests to detect even very small traces of nitrofuran.
In 2006, China exported just 12,300 tons of live eels valued at some US$130 million to Japan. This marked a considerable decrease in quantity, and of course in profits, for Chinese producers compared with 2005. Broiled eel exports were similarly affected.
Allegations concerning "contaminated eels" are always sure to spark heated debate, cause public concern, and influence consumer choices.
In March 2006, following receipt of a report on import volumes, the Japanese Ministry of Commerce was quick to comment on rising fears over Chinese penetration into Japanese markets.
It was about this time that a series of exaggerated reports on Chinese-made eels began to gnaw away at Japanese consumer confidence. Since Japan's introduction of the positive list system, China's food exports to Japan have actually grown a little, but significantly the rate of increase has declined.
Food detentions and rejections in America, Japan, and the EU do seem to have a disproportionate impact on seafood from China, which topped the lists of all three for the January to May figures last year.
FDA projections show that the farm-raised seafood industry can be expected to grow in leaps and bounds to account for half of the world's seafood consumption. China is by far the major farm-raised seafood supplier, producing 70 percent of world output. It is also the third largest exporter of seafood to the US where one shrimp in every 10 is from China together with one catfish in every 50.
Hot-pot restaurants where fresh meat and vegetables are cooked right there on the table are a great favorite in China. Beijing Xiabu Xiabu Fast Food Chain Store Co Ltd owns the city's Xiabu Xiabu hot-pot restaurants. Two months ago it responded to international concerns over food safety by investing 18,000 yuan (about US$2,400) in a pesticide-testing machine to guarantee the safety of its vegetables.
According to Mei Xinyu, "The supervision of small and medium-sized food processing establishments and restaurants is more relaxed than for the big companies." Mei is a researcher with the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, a research and advisory arm affiliated to the Ministry of Commerce.
China's fruit and vegetable production has nearly doubled since 2001. This is good news for healthy living but food safety cannot be easily guaranteed when pollution levels have also been on the increase.
According to Chen Tongbin, "Supervision of farmland pollution should be considered to be as important as that of food production itself. Systematic supervision of food supply chains can save the country from potentially huge losses." Chen is a geographic researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In an incident in early 2006, more than 100 pigs died of arsenic poisoning in Xinxiang County of Henan Province. Concentrations of the heavy metal in pig feed were found to be ten times over the safety standards.
Last year, the Ministry of Commerce introduced a series of food safety regulations covering food processing to purchasing. This year, the food industry is waiting for new regulations to be extended to slaughterhouses and food packaging.
However, despite ever-tightening regulations, pollution means that food safety problems continue to appear. Last June, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare warned its citizens to be cautious when importing Chinese mussels from the sea around Dalu Island of northern China's Liaoning Province. The mussels were considered likely to contain Paralytic Seashell Poison. According to the ministry, Japanese importers should remain cautious until the sea becomes clean.
As of 2006, China had 1,965 national standards concerning food safety. Of these 634 were compulsory and the others optional. In addition, the Chinese food production sector had by then developed a further 2,892 standards of its own.
Today in China, the government is directly addressing food safety issues. It has placed a renewed emphasis on the hygiene and quality of farm products and processed food. It is accelerating the work of formulating standards concerning food production and also for food and beverage services. China is expected to issue its first set of national criteria for foodstuffs by the end of this year.
Cao Desheng, of the China General Chamber of Commerce (CGCC), said they were working on scientific standards for special food products based on current market circumstances. He believes that food safety can be assured if all the relevant standards are properly implemented. But many still doubt if all these official standards can actually be applied by law-enforcement agencies, government departments and officials operating at grass-roots level.
Meanwhile, Cao argues that the public should be prepared to accept that regional differences and timescales for implementation will get in the way of a uniform application of the standards.
Third party inspection and testing
This July, the Philippines Bureau of Food and Drugs claimed that the famous White Rabbit candies produced by Guan Sheng Yuan (Group) Company Ltd contained formaldehyde.
Guan Sheng Yuan immediately turned for help to the Shanghai Branch of SGS, a world leading inspection and testing company. SGS carried out thorough testing and reported that the White Rabbit candy tested was free from formaldehyde. This authoritative report helped Guan Sheng Yuan deal with the issue within four days.
This high profile incident put the Shanghai Branch of SGS into the spotlight and focused public attention on the role of the third party inspection and testing organizations. As matter of fact, such organizations are well-known to Chinese enterprises seeking to do business in overseas markets. They provide Chinese companies with testing services that have helped many overcome the technical barriers that developed countries might use to prevent or delay the entry of Chinese companies into their markets.
With so many food safety issues now surfacing, such third party organizations are becoming more and more important. Zhang Yan of SGS believes they can make a difference in three ways:
• Widely recognized as being fair and objective, they represent an important third party force in the battle to assure safety and quality in Chinese food by providing reliable information to consumers.
• They play a major supporting role helping the authorities that monitor food safety and quality.
• They do a vital job connecting Chinese food producers with global markets by encouraging them to work to international standards.
Small scale production
Small scale food production facilities are very common in China today. In fact, they have been on the scene for over a thousand years and are a distinct part of China's heritage and culture. Moreover they provide job opportunities for millions and convenience for ordinary consumers. Unfortunately they now pose one of the gravest threats to the nation's food safety.
These small enterprises usually operate without any business license. They employ fewer than ten people who are normally family members or casual workers. Poorly equipped, they cannot provide good working environments. Worse still, the food they make does not go through any quality monitoring and examination procedures. These products are unlikely to fully meet the standards set by the authorities and are sometimes even discovered to have poisonous ingredients.
According to official regulations, food production workers should be in good health and free from any infectious disease. But employee health is not high on the agenda and workers will most probably never have had any sort of medical check carried out directly in connection with their employment.
Solving these problems is a real headache for the authorities. Small food processing businesses are widely distributed across China. New outlets are continuously springing up while others close their doors. Large numbers are involved, no one knows for sure but estimates are in the half to one million range. However, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine (GAQSIQ) is determined to act to shut down substandard operations. In July this year it issued a regulation prohibiting food from these small producers from being distributed to local stores and supermarkets or marketed outside their own county-level administrative regions. This shows GAQSIQ aims to restrict distribution channels within manageable areas to facilitate monitoring. Many people have welcomed the regulation, considering it benefits both the industry and the consumer. However, others view it as prejudicial to the interests of small producers.
Dr. Hu Dinghuan of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Institute of Agricultural Economics and Development said it is necessary for the government to adopt drastic measures to tackle substandard food production. However the government should proceed step by step rather than rushing into dealing with the problems with small producers.
What all the experts agree on is that it is absolutely essential to improve current food safety laws and management systems in order to deal effectively with substandard food production.
(China.org.cn by He Shan, Wu Jin and Pang Li, September 13, 2007)