It is no secret that China has had a long tussle with food safety. The final kick needed to bring it to the nation’s - and also the world’s - attention was the melamine milk scandal that claimed the lives of at least 13 infants in 2008. Many claimed this figure was much higher, but you can never tell when the true figure is guarded by China's typically iron-fisted state machinery.
Since then, I must admit, the country’s people and industry have taken great strides to ensure that safer and better-quality food reaches its store shelves. Meanwhile, increasingly more reports tell us that the common Chinese man is now more aware of his food and where it comes from.
The industry has reacted too. In dairy, where Kiwi milk and infant formula makers have been making a killing since that scandal, domestic players have slowly come up to speed with global standards of production and distribution.
But that leaves the administration.
On the face of it, if you go by general perception, the state machinery should have been the MOST efficient. But the ground reality is very different.
Experts and industry professionals have long reported to journalists that while the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) has more than a few good men, oftentimes it functions in a reactive manner. Catching the counterfeit supplements and closing stores after contamination? They do that with Stormtrooper-like efficiency.
Rooting out the problem in the first-half of the supply chain? More like Sgt. Bailey there.
Some of it is understandable. China is a very, very large country. Its food and beverage industry, if you include the unorganised sector as well, is probably as big as the whole of Europe. There are bound to be some eels that slip through the cracks.
On top of that, food is not the only thing on the SFDA’s plate; it deals with drugs and cosmetics too. Moreover, the SFDA is not the only authority that deals with food either - across the supply chain, there are more than 10 ministries with their own watchdogs to deal with food in one way or the other.
Now, as my colleague wrote on this website a day ago, China is moving towards one super watchdog. One giant to integrate all these other agencies and take care of all the business. The government expects this body to do what others failed to do.
I am surprised that the Chinese were unable to look across the Himalayas and embrace the Indian example. India is similar in profile to China in this context, except that many contamination incidents in the country often go unreported.
India too went towards having one super-regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), a couple of years ago with precisely the same aim. The FSSAI will be the super-efficient behemoth that monitors and controls food safety in this country as well as set standards, the government told us.
But the problem is, behemoths are slow to move, slow to react, and slow to turn.
The FSSAI has been notoriously laborious in most of its functions. Setting standards on health claims? They spent more time than it took for James Cook to find Australia. And there is still no clear picture. Introducing more licenses? Yes, they have been quick on that. Setting up new panels? There are more committees and panels than you can count on two hands. Allowing 68% of India’s milk to be adulterated on their watch? You can just read about that one.
I am not saying that the FSSAI has failed or that it will not in time clean up India. What I am saying is that the machinery is only as good as the people running it and the people backing it. Whether it be 10 bodies or one, all it needs is the right people working on the right set of laws and, beyond that, the right set of ethics and common sense.
Management experts will tell you that the best companies have a culture of delegation and trust on which they build an organisational structure tuned towards the same goal.
So is one unified body with a thousand people better than 10 with 100 people working towards the same goal?
Don’t bother answering that. It is not.
The Chinese government’s latest trick is just what it is. A trick.
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