Watching Asia from a Western prism gives you the advantage of seeing the bigger picture. But on the flip-side, you end up benchmarking what you see against what has happened in the West.
For example, Asia’s roaring economic growth is said to be the product of many countries opening up to the world and adopting a more flexible, market-friendly policy environment that fosters entrepreneurship. In fact, it’s a very Western explanation.
But if you were to meet a successful Asian entrepreneur, I’d bet he will tell you his success came despite the government, and not because of it. And that is true across all of Asia, where governments mostly inherited suppressing systems used by their former colonial overlords to keep the natives in control. The famed Indian Administrative Service is a fine example, as is the civil administration in large parts of South and Southeast Asia.
Food Safety is one of those things that suffers from this bureaucracy. Take one major instance of a food safety scandal in India or China and I will show you at least one committee still breathing because of it. And two licences that did not exist before the event. It was the colonial way. Don’t understand anything? Toss in a licence.
Tackling an issue in Asia is mostly about throwing a book at it. Anything new or alien that the authorities do not understand or mostly don’t care to understand, you can be damn well sure that there will soon be a licence or permission for it.
Licences, permissions and labels are not inherently a bad concept. It is just that with large populations and incapable governments that are hamstrung and inefficient, Asia countries do not have an environment where people can trust the government (even though there are notable exceptions like Singapore and Japan).
There is a reason why Kiwi milk is still king in China, even though the industry and government have made significant strides in tackling the issue. And why a FSSAI-approved food does not mean much to the local Indian. They don’t care.
What they do trust—or not—is the food maker. Brands and their reputation mean everything to Asians. If it’s a multinational brand with a degree pedigree, be assured that it does not need much to market its food safety credibility. On the other hand, an upstart can find it way tougher.
Lets be honest, the governments of India and China at the very least, and some others across South and Southeast Asia, have failed in ensuring food safety to the point that no native really thinks that they can do much to fix the systems.
Here is an idea. Excuse yourself, authorities, and outsource your systems. Give it to the private sector. Move en masse towards third-party certification, preferably with established globally known names to do the monitoring. Give these private companies the power and flexibility to fix the processes that have failed. If need be, let them even remove these processes. Hold them accountable but stay relevant only in punishing food safety infractions. That is what you do best now, anyways.
It can work, just as it has worked in other sectors. Just ask any Indian who would likely die of old age before they could get a passport—and this was only a few years ago. Today, Tata Consultancy Services ensures that you get your new passport in a week. Ask the older Thais whose tales of power woes were legendary. A bend towards privatisation has meant uninterrupted and corruption free power for today’s Thailand. The examples are countless.
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