May 10, 2011 08:02 PM

How China Can Make Its Food Safer to Swallow

Contaminated food should never threaten a society. Tainted food harms our health, sometimes fatally. Safety breaches are difficult to hide. And governments everywhere take food safety very seriously.

So why in China have there been so many cases of dangerous food reaching the nation's consumer market in recent years – from egg yolks colored with Sudan Red dye and milk laced with melamine, to more recent revelations of cadmium-tainted rice and drug-infused meat?

Food safety is a critical area of public interest, and persistent safety breaches have tested our leaders' governance skills.

Authorities recently showed resolve toward tackling the problem by announcing a year-long, nationwide campaign to ban the use of chemicals such as clenbuterol, which was given to pigs to produce leaner meat but endangers human health, and pledging to clamp down on the unlawful use of food additives. But such "shock and awe" measures, while effective for a short while, do not get to the root of the problem.

To find a real solution, consumers must be allowed to discuss the issue openly, and food companies must be subject to scrutiny. This is the right cure for the ill. If we don't press forward on these fronts, food safety will continue to be compromised.

First and foremost, we must hold government officials accountable for food safety problems. Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who also serves as chief of the State Council's Food Safety Commission, said officials must accept responsibility for wrongdoing, regardless of their department or region. A lack of enforcement and accountability lets officials shirk their duties, while the public pays the price.

The problem isn't a lack of regulations, which are in fact detailed and comprehensive. China currently has 40 sets of laws and regulations, as well as nearly 300 department rules, covering food safety. The real problem is non-compliance with the law. The reasons are complex, but without doubt a major cause is a lack of official accountability. Against the backdrop of lax enforcement, it's no surprise that illegal conduct cannot be stopped.

Disciplining errant officials can be a good start for a clean-up after nationwide crisis. We saw this in two examples: Former health minister Zhang Wenkang was sacked for mishandling the SARS crisis, and Li Changjiang was forced to step down as head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine after melamine-tainted milk sickened hundreds of babies. The sackings boosted public confidence in the government's regulatory system, but only for a time.

By contrast, it's disappointing that no official has been held responsible for the recent case of clenbuterol-tainted meat, even though agriculture authorities were clearly negligent. Hundreds of millions of people whose health could be affected may pay a high price for these regulatory lapses. The scope of the negligence has vastly exceeded public expectations.

Besides holding officials accountable, we also need to improve regulation. China's food safety regulatory system has undergone many adjustments, but a prominent problem remains: None of the agencies involved is truly in charge.

The Ministry of Health is not taking the lead as it should in guiding supervisory efforts. The ministry should direct and coordinate supervision, but rarely do we hear or see it taking charge when a problem surfaces. Health officials were nowhere to be found after reports detailed cadmium pollution in rice fields earlier this year. Nor did they get involved in the clenbuterol-tainted pork scandal.

And the Food Safety Commission lacks regulatory bite. Although the commission is in charge of food safety oversight issues, it lacks the legal support needed to pursue administrative action or take responsibility for food security problems. Thus, even though its members include high-level officials, the commission can do little to ensure food safety.

Because contaminated food has been a problem for years, public trust in the government has been seriously weakened. So any efforts to overhaul the administrative structure, strengthen planning or beef up co-ordination would not be enough to win back public trust.

Instead of merely tinkering with the regulatory system behind closed doors, authorities should build a comprehensive supervisory network. Inside the network, open discussions about food safety should be encouraged, consumer rights protected and public supervision strengthened. A broad supervision process that's accessible and answerable to the public would vastly improve food quality protection.

Civil society groups can help improve food safety. They are not out to disrupt society, as some officials think. It's disappointing that some local governments have responded to investigative media reports about food safety problems by threatening reporters or engaging in what they call "anti-propaganda" efforts. And others tried to prevent consumers from seeking legal redress in tainted food cases.

China's fight to keep food safe faces inherent difficulties. First, it's difficult to trace sources of tainted food back to farms and other food processors scattered around the country. Second, the food market is dominated by elephants and mice: giant food manufacturers, including monopolies, and numerous small producers across the country. The system makes supervision especially challenging.

Third, regulators lack manpower, funding and other resources. Neither do regulators always understand the scope of their duties. Fourth, appraising officials based on GDP performance forces local governments to ignore food safety responsibilities.

These problems deserve careful study. Their complexity should not be used as an excuse for allowing food safety violations. Policymakers must seek to overhaul regulations and redefine regulatory responsibilities. They must let public scrutiny serve to correct occasional administrative lapses.

We should also trust and support civil society groups that can play a role. Finally, authorities must learn from past mistakes and take accountability seriously. Only then will public confidence in the system improve.

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