Who’s responsible for food safety in China?

Guest post by Zhang Ke, reporter at First Financial Daily

Whose responsibility is food safety? At the “2012 International Forum on Food Safety”, held in Beijing on April 14, experts from around the world had a clear message: all interested parties bear responsibility.

Professor Hu Xiaosong of China Agricultural University pointed out that China’s total agricultural output had grown more than one hundred-fold in a little over 30 years, rising from 47.3 billion yuan (US$7.5 billion) in 1978 to 7.8 trillion yuan (US$1.2 trillion) in 2011. “The flourishing of the food industry brings with it a range of problems – food security does not come with zero risks,” Hu said.

Joseph Jen, former under-secretary of the US Department of Agriculture and co-chair of the expert panel at the International Union of Food Science and Technology said: “China’s progress on the regulatory front is spectacular, particularly when compared with certain other countries. Nonetheless, I must be honest in admitting that China’s food safety regulation is still very far from the standards of the United States.”

Can food safety problems ever be eradicated? Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety expert at the World Health Organization said: “We cannot reach 100% food safety, and every country must face this reality. But what we can do is work to minimise the risks and predict future risks”.

In recent years, the Chinese government has cracked down on problems including the use of illegal additives and the sale of clenbuterol-contaminated meat. From a scientific point of view, this is considerable progress. But the common perception among consumers is that food safety is actually getting worse in China.

Chen Junshi, chairman of China’s National Expert Committee for Food Safety Risk and professor at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told reporters there are three key reasons behind this apparent contradiction: media coverage of the issue has expanded; consumers are more aware of their rights than in the past and are demanding zero risks; and the government has strengthened oversight, bringing more problems out of the woodwork.

Chen added: “Safe food products come from producers, not through supervision or detection.”

Any country in the world can be hit by food safety problems, added Embarek. From Germany to the United States to China, nowhere is spared the risk. “Food safety is also a key issue in international trade,” he said. “Food processed in one part of the world is likely to be linked to production in another. Food safety must be viewed from a global perspective.”

In this context, all countries must cooperate to boost global food safety, he added. “We cannot operate separately – we need to establish a global food safety system.”

This post was first published by First Financial Daily on April 20, 2012.

Translated by chinadialogue volunteer Claudia Vernotti