Food Scandals, Regulation, and the Administrative Process in Modern China

  One need look no further than the ongoing civil war in Syria to understand the impact of food scarcity on peoples’ interest in politics. There, a 2006 drought pushed farmers who were feeling the brunt of the weather and the regime’s economic policies into crowded urban centers. They could voice their frustrations in this setting and far more people would hear, and more importantly, sympathize with them (Hammer). Scholars are increasingly pointing to this phenomenon, linked not only to politics but also to the environment, as a source of the Syrian conflict. Indeed, food is so important to a country because it represents the intersection of many different public and private interests. People become discontent when food is scarce, public health suffers, and political stability is threatened. Hunger throughout history has served as an important catalyst for political upheaval and one that should not be ignored. The last several decades of Chinese history reflect similar instances of scarcity prompting discontent and forcing change.

    In China, food scarcity is not a new problem. Famine is deeply embedded in Chinese history and ingrained in the public’s historical consciousness. Censorship programs by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aim to wipe memories of the Great Leap Forward and its catastrophic consequences from the minds of the Chinese, but interviews with survivors and aggressive research has led to scholars estimating that between 35 and 45 million people died between 1958 and 1961 because of the CCP’s collectivist agricultural policies (Akbar). For perspective, World War II’s death toll was 55 million. The impact of these tragedies on Chinese peoples’ relationship to food is profound. Many older Chinese witnessed such egregious food shortages that cannibalism occurred in more than a few instances. The common expression “民以食为天 [food is as important to the people as heaven]” illustrates the emphasis on food that has developed in response to these memories. Today’s collective anxiety comes in no small part from the fact that for a lot of their modern history, Chinese people have simply not had enough food.

    But not having enough is an obvious concern. The point at which people begin to care about having food is universal: when they get hungry. The point at which people begin to care whether that food is of good quality (nutritious, diverse, not excessively genetically-modified, organic, bought under conditions of fair trade, etc.) is not so clear. China, however, needs to have started caring yesterday. Because of its history and the fact that today, dietary risks represent the leading cause of death in China - accounting for 30.6% of deaths - it is necessary to ask about the state of food regulation and the public’s awareness of what they are eating. We must also ask what it means when Chinese diets are characterized by being “low in fruits, high in sodium, or low in whole grains; all of which are problems with diet even in rural areas” (Yang, Gonghuan). With this history and recent scandals in mind, one must ask: what is the source and nature of food regulation in China?

    Considering what people know about the food they eat is important. In China, perceptions of food are often shaped by the scandals reported in the international press. Long term dietary risks such as a diet low in whole grains or fruits do not spark civic unrest. The effects of these deficiencies are latent. However, the startlingly common food scandals and their gut-wrenching nature have the potential to provoke change. These scandals have ranged from the 2015 seizure of half a billion dollars worth of 40-year-old smuggled meat to “rat meat masquerading as lamb” (Levin) to “imitation eggs made out of gelatine” (Hatton). Public awareness and the availability of information are important factors in the development of regulations and the monitoring of food. Sadly, the government and the Chinese public largely become enthusiastic about food safety only after some tragedy forces them to be.

    A case from 2008 illustrates both phenomena. In response to an infamous incident involving Sanlu baby formula that caused 6 infant deaths and the hospitalization of 300,000 babies, “concerns over food safety [at the time] tripled” (Hatton). According to a Pew Research Center poll that followed, “[m]ore than a third of people believe persistent safety issues with the country's food is a ‘very big problem’” (Hatton). But considering that this represents a tripling of the concerned population, this poll shows that there was little awareness beforehand. At the same time, a 2014 announcement from Xinhua, the main state-run media outlet, noted in regards to the crisis that “public confidence in domestic baby formula has never been fully restored” (China Daily). In 2015, a survey conducted by Beijing-based research company Horizon Research and Horizonkey found that “eighty percent of the 3,166 respondents…are not satisfied with food safety in China” and attributed the majority of the blame to food companies’ actions during production and processing (He). Of course, crisis management is a facet of regulation in many countries, but it seems disproportionately so in China, especially when it comes to food.

    China’s first Food Safety Law is a case in point. It resulted from 2008’s baby formula scandal and the public unrest this scandal caused (China Daily). The magnitude of the problem is a testament to what is necessary before the CCP feels compelled to respond to crises. In 2008, the Sanlu Group, “a leading dairy firm in north China,” was responsible for the contaminated formula, which they altered by adding an organic chemical called melamine to its dairy products. Melamine is “widely used in plastics, adhesives, countertops, dishware, whiteboards” and is added to milk that has been diluted (to increase its volume) because under test conditions this milk will indicate a higher protein concentration than is actually present, making it ostensibly suitable for sale. Notwithstanding the already diluted product, this milk was especially dangerous because melamine takes the form of small white crystals which when ingested can “block the small tubes in the kidney potentially stopping the production of urine, causing kidney failure and, in some cases, death” (WHO).

    The resulting Food Safety Law that took effect in 2009 attempted to strengthen regulations specifically against the dairy industry but also on food in general. However, scandals persisted. A notable case from 2014 involves bean sprouts, a very popular vegetable in China. That this incident involved vegetables is significant because many suggest vegetarianism as a way of avoiding bad food in China. A company had used an additive that speeds up growth and increases the size of the sprouts but can also cause “premature puberty, disrupt menstrual cycles and contribut to osteoporosis” (Yu). Zhang Yong, head of China’s food regulatory body, called the 2009 law ineffective, its penalties “comparatively light,” and deemed it a poor deterrent for offenders (China Daily). A scandal involving fox and rat meat being sold as mutton also led to the arrest of 63 people during the interim following the law’s 2009 passage (Yu). Such scandals prompted reform, and a draft was introduced in June 2014 meant to enhance deterrence, supervision, and accountability (China Daily).

    These changes represented the first steps by the government toward improving the original 2009 law. They highlight the difficulties inherent in regulating China’s food industry and maintain a focus on those industries affected most by scandals (e.g. dairy and online markets). Such proposals were overdue but represented the carrying out of a goal that was first set at the 18th CCP Central Committee in November 2013 (Food Safety News). Since 2014, the public, regulatory bodies, and the government were engaged in a back and forth of drafts, notices, and comments meant to improve the proposed law. Over the course of two years, “the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA), the State Council, and the National People’s Congress (NPC)…held four public comment periods for the revisions” (Balzano). These amendments were adopted in April 2014, set to go into effect October 1, 2015 (Food Safety News). Important to consider is what this comment process says about the public’s engagement with food regulation.

    On some level, it is a sign of the government responding to widespread concerns about food safety. The process of releasing drafts for comments from stakeholders, accepting them online, considering them, and then releasing a new proposal is reminiscent of the United States’ rule-making procedure, followed by executive agencies in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act. This comparison is dangerous though, because often the NPC’s proposals are dictated by the Communist Party. It is not uncommon for final drafts to include changes that were never before released for comment. When this happens, the NCP vindicates skeptics and calls into question the validity of its supposed concerns about the public’s interest in food safety. Criticism of the administrative process is further justified by the law’s vague language on supervision. People have complained to media outlets that “[i]t seems that the legislators are trying to write a law just to please the Communist Party leaders. For example, the law states it will establish 'a very strict supervision system', which isn't a formal or legal term” (Hatton). All this complexity begs the question: who is doing the regulating anyway? Who is implementing the Food Safety Law? Despite popular perception, China, like the US has a Food and Drug Administration (CFDA). One must be careful in using connotative English words like “agency” or “administration” to define bodies of the Chinese government, but the CFDA itself uses this nomenclature. It is not so much a lack of regulations, but their implementation, enforcement, and supervision by regulators which present perhaps the greatest challenge to food safety in China.

    The lack of specificity seen in some parts of the Food Safety Law increases the burden of implementation for regulatory bodies, a burden which is already severe. Following the passage of the new Food Safety Law, the CFDA “issued around 10 proposed rules and finalized three of them” in just four months (Balzano). This accelerated process offers little opportunity for stakeholders to respond to proposals. In addition, because the revised law is so concerned with enforcement and supervision, the CFDA, which is already considered understaffed (Food Safety News), will be forced to deal with an increased workload: “Even though some responsibility will go to the provincial-level food and drug agencies and those at even lower levels of local government, CFDA will retain most of the burden for coordination” (Balzano).

    Adding to this complexity is the murky history of the CFDA. Originally, the former Ministry of Health (MOH) bore responsibility for maintaining food safety and implementing regulations. Authority was then delegated “to the old State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), to the General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine (AQSIQ), to the MOH and SFDA concurrently, and, since March 2013, back primarily to CFDA” (Balzano). During the period lasting from 2003, when the SFDA was founded, until the present day, food regulation has been tainted by corruption, illustrated best by the case of Zheng Xiaoyu. Zheng was the SFDA’s first commissioner and was executed in 2007 for bribe-taking and dereliction of duty (Yang, Dali). It was an overaggressive, example-setting crackdown by Chinese officials, but could suggest in tandem with the introduction and then revision of the Food Safety Law since 2008 that the CCP is taking dietary risks and nutrition seriously. It could also all be a show. One should be careful in making either assumption.

    Even when regulating authority clearly belongs to the CFDA, factors like complicated laws, understaffed government offices, black markets, smugglers, and an immense, fractured system of food production make administration and enforcement incredibly difficult, sometimes implausible (Hunt). To combat these characteristics of the food market in China, the CFDA points to criminal law and enforcement in hopes that more severe punishments will discourage dangerous behavior. This pushes the burden of enforcement from the CFDA to the state’s security apparatus, which is what was suggested by the execution of the first CFDA commissioner.

    Institutional reforms and more capable administrative staff might do a better job of accomplishing this regulatory task by allowing the CFDA to carry out inspections efficiently and thoroughly, instead of relying on scandals to prompt responses. Some argue that these reforms should take the form of altering the “SFDA’s regulatory portfolio, covering food and pharmaceuticals,” saying it “is too large to be managed effectively in the Chinese context” and the government should “separate food regulation from the SFDA into a separate agency to allow for greater attention to food safety regulation.” Other critics have proposed separating drug approval and drug production safety regulation, “with the remainder of the severely weakened SFDA being put into another ministry, such as the Ministry of Health” (Yang, Dali).

    Like many problems faced by China, the issues that food regulators are confronting in China are diverse and stretch across the political spectrum. Zheng Xiaoyu’s execution signaled the deeply ingrained corruption in the country’s highest regulatory body. The inefficiency of the original Food Safety Law and then the hasty process by which the revised law was written suggests what critics say is the government merely placating the public. And finally, the CFDA’s murky history combined with an overburdened administration makes institutional reforms perhaps more urgent than new laws and rules. These problems are made no more feasible by the government’s censorship and lack of transparency. Public awareness is necessary to encourage the kind of accountability that leads to a more cooperative, voluntary, and ethical system of food regulation. But the CCP is unlikely to approach the issue from this perspective. Today, scandals remain the most common source of food regulation, pushing public health in China forward in a perverse way that all too often includes the cost of human lives.

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