Stark reality bites for China's food producers

China’s food production standards have regularly hit the headlines in recent years. But as Elly Earls reports, the country is introducing tough measures to tackle food safety issues

Over the past five years, China has been shaken by a raft of food safety scandals, which have reduced consumer confidence in domestic products, eaten away at food and beverage businesses’ profits and had significant global impacts.

But, following a spate of serious events in the last few months – including the discovery of 15,000 dead farm animals in the Huangpu River and the contamination of rice supplies from China’s top producing province with the heavy metal cadmium, the government is finally stepping up by introducing new regulations, clamping down on illegal activity and signing international agreements.

The global media really started taking notice of China’s food safety issues back in September 2008 when six children died and a further 294,000 were made ill from drinking infant formula contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine.

Since then, scandals including the discovery of cadmium-tainted rice, fake mutton made from rat meat and recycled cooking oil have done nothing to reduce media interest or improve either domestic or international confidence in the state of China’s food safety system.

Indeed, sales of home food safety tests have soared in China and a survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 41% of Chinese said last year that food safety was a very serious problem, compared with just 12% in 2008. This drop in consumer confidence has, in turn, affected food and beverage businesses such as Yum Brands, owner of KFC and Pizza Hut; the company, which is the largest foreign restaurant chain operator by sales in China, recorded a drop of 41% in sales at its China KFC outlets in January 2013.

Food safety experts and consumers in the US are also becoming increasingly worried, as food exports from China increase at a rapid rate, while, closer to home, Chinese consumers are buying up infant milk powder in Hong Kong, leading to shortages and strict new restrictions on travellers taking it out of the territory.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, as, this year, the Chinese government has made a priority of taking a tougher stance on food safety.

In March, a new ministry-level agency – the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) – was established, which increases the power of the government to oversee food safety. The new agency, which replaces the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), will seek to “strengthen regulation and boost people’s confidence in the country’s food and drug products” by eliminating “blind spots” and overlaps in regulatory authority, according to a top Chinese official.

The CFDA has already ordered local authorities to tighten scrutiny on the production and sale of fake meat products and launched a campaign, which will run until September, to clamp down on the illegal production, sales and promotion of health food.

Moreover, a group of nine Chinese governmental agencies, including the CFDA, have set out measures that mean infant formula companies will now be subject to the same product certification systems as drug companies, as well as being obliged to report the ingredients they use to the food safety administration and give advance notice of any changes.

New poultry regulations have also been implemented in Shanghai, which aim to prevent bird flu outbreaks, while the National Health and Family Planning Commission announced in July that the government was looking to strengthen standards concerning food contaminants, fungal toxins, food additives and food labels.

In the same month, recognising that food safety is a global – as well as a national – concern, the Chinese Academy of Inspection and Quarantine partnered with the US National Center for Food Protection and Defense, signing a memorandum of understanding on food safety, food protection and food defence issues.

While there is still a long way to go, progress is certainly being made, as Chinese authorities realise the impact the country’s food safety regulations could have on the domestic, regional and indeed global food industry.

Elly Earls


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