Briefing

China’s make-or-break year for food safety reform

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

China has ramped up the investigation of food safety offences
China has ramped up the investigation of food safety offences

Related tags: Food safety, Regulation

We are now in the third month of what could be a landmark year for food safety in China. 

The fact that the debates at this year’s GFSI global food safety conference, which ended last week in Kuala Lumpur, referenced China’s issues and standards clearly reflects how important it is on an international level for China to address its problems.

It is fair to say that the country does not have a sound food safety record on any level. Arrests and convictions for food safety offences have been frequent in the last year, since the government really began to tighten its approach to food regulation, investigation and standards.

It has some strict import regulations and requirements—though these often prevent good-quality products from entering the country. At the same time, revelations of government and corporate corruption, and cases of companies taking short cuts or over-economising, leading to public health scares, has resulted in a chronic loss of public confidence in domestic food manufacturing.

A regulatory system with teeth

More than anything, China needs a regulatory system that encourages safe food, dissuades the exchange of kick-backs, reduces safety scandals and punishes those who violate the law. The arrival of an amended food safety law is a strong possibility this year. 

In two years, the government has called three times on the industry and public to provide input for the law’s revision. Experts say this attention to detail is a reflection of how the authorities want the food law’s revision to work for fear further loss of consumer confidence.

A number of changes have already been made on the back of the rounds of stakeholder comments and judging by the increasing detail of the published drafts, an updated law should be taking shape by now.

China will also likely have devised a policy on mandatory labelling for genetically modified ingredients when the law is revealed. 

Currently, GM labelling is required as a regulation, though there is no law on its practice. There is a possibility that the government will draw up a GM labelling law, and this will be harder to change.

Bark and bite

The latest draft revision suggests a growing appetite for stronger penalties for legal and regulatory violations, including mandatory prison sentences for serious offences like distributing substandard meat.

China has always tended to be strict on food transgressors, with 2013 seeing over 2,000 criminal cases involving unsafe food, and the conviction of 2,647 people on related charges. Now it has just announced a 22-month crackdown on food crime, on the back of a year of more visible investigations.

It is hard to shake the feeling that the growing success of food authorities, who have have announced several new initiatives and crackdowns recently, is only the tip of the iceberg. But if they are given more teeth, regulators and regulations will hopefully instil more respect for the system in potential violators.

Raising the standards

It should be easier for proven high-quality food and nutrition to come into the country, and it is expected that this will move in the right direction when the next—and hopefully final—draft is released.

Many nutrition importers in particular see the current regulatory framework as brutal, with its conflicting and outdated standards at odds with the need for them to get new approval for products that are fully approved in other countries with strong safety systems. This latter process could take over a year and cost hundreds of thousand dollars.

Even knowing which of the myriad standards to access and finding the most up to date versions is still a slog. 

In November, a new draft introduced a category called “nutritional supplements​”, which at this point only includes vitamins and minerals. These supplements will not have to go through the strict “blue hat​” registration system that other supplements still have to follow.

The reform process has witnessed Chinese officials engaging with overseas regulators for the first time, another indication that China understands the need for reform to promote the wider importation of high-quality products that are already proven in other markets.

Related topics: Policy, East Asia, Food safety, China

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