Food Safety in China: From the Field to Your Dinner Plate

Food Safety in China: From the Field to Your Dinner Plate
Apr 27, 2013 By Esta Chappell ,

Having safe food to eat concerns everyone, but you could argue that China has become notorious for its food safety scandals: melamine-laced milk, recycled “gutter oil”, pill capsules containing industrial gelatin, and carcinogenic food dye in KFC to name just a few. While food scandals in the West appear to be a consequence of globalization, in China there are a number of other underlying and interrelated factors that result in unsafe food, including opportunists and profit-making attitudes, untraceable contracts and a limited regulatory environment tainted by corruption and greed.

food safety in China

Background: Backyards to Megafarms

At first glance, it would appear that small-scale “backyard” farmers dominate food production in China. Rows of vegetables seem to occupy every spare space of flat land, whether it’s beside a motorway, polluted canal or a discarded construction site. And attempting to trace food safety issues back to their origin would be problematic when dealing with millions of inpidual farmers. But with the advancing economy and increasing commercialization and urbanization, China’s food industry is changing, and quickly. In the last two decades commercial food production has overtaken the backyard farming industry.

Take pork for example. China produces more pork than any other country in the world and is a top consumer. Small backyard farmers raising less than 30 hogs a year make up only 30-40 percent of China’s total pork production (compared to 80 percent around ten years ago). The rest now comes from commercial farms where pigs are born and reared indoors for their entire lifespan. These farms, however, comprise only 5 percent of the total number of pig farmers in China, but generate the majority of the 490-618 million pigs produced every year. In other words, China’s commercial pig farming is well on its way to mimicking the “megafarms” of the United States and (to a lesser extent) Europe.

Megafarm opportunists and local government protection

Even though it is no doubt easier to trace food safety issues back to their origin in an industry dominated by megafarms (as opposed to millions of inpidual farmers), major incidents continue to occur. When it comes to food safety in China, opportunistic behavior is rife. The food supply chain is very much profit rather than quality driven, and as such opportunities are taken to make money wherever possible and at any point along the food production chain, no matter the human safety risks or legal penalties.

Such was the case in the melamine milk scandal of 2008. Producers were increasing the quantity of milk powder, and therefore profits, by watering down the milk. To conceal the diluted milk and falsely increase the protein content, they were adding the chemical melamine, which can cause kidney stones and bladder problems in humans. This resulted in the death of six infants and the hospitalization of many thousands more. More recently but on a smaller scale, the soy sauce enterprise Weiji Seasoning Food were also trying to bump up profits in the highly competitive soy sauce market. By adding industrial salt (carcinogenic and often loaded with heavy metals) and water to flavor the soy, they were saving considerably on the much more expensive table salt that is normally used.

And there are many more examples of this kind of opportunistic behavior that are cause for concern in China despite the tough penalties imposed on those who are caught. It seems that even the death penalty is not a deterrent for the kind of profits that can be made in the food industry—the melamine scandal for example resulted in the death sentence for two men, life imprisonment for three others and a 15-year jail term for anther two involved, in addition to the eventual bankruptcy of the Sanlu Group itself.

Of course, the risk of getting caught is actually quite low when you take into account the protection provided by local officials. Although these government officials are required to regulate large corporations, such as the Sanlu Group, in their regions, they are also under pressure to stimulate economic growth. As in the melamine scandal, officials will often hide or cover up food safety issues if profits are jeopardized.

Contracts and traceability issues with backyard farms

While the megafarms that engage in opportunistic behavior often receive protection from local officials, tracing food safety issues back to inpidual “backyard” farmers is difficult for a different reason. Contracts in China between backyard farmers and agricultural processors are commonly price-quantity contracts. This is where the farmer is contracted to supply a set quantity of pigs, for example, at a set price to the processor (usually the current market price not that at the time of harvest). The problem with these types of contracts, and where tracing the origin of food safety issues becomes difficult, is that they open up the potential for—you guessed it—opportunistic behavior. For example, if the market price of an agricultural product is higher than the contracted price, the farmer may breach the contract and sell directly to the market via cash sales and paperless transactions. In this instance, the processor gains very little financially by suing the farmer and instead would incur high court costs.

Difficulties in tracing the origin of diseased or unsafe animals bound for food production, was recently highlighted in China when thousands of dead pigs were found floating down the Huangpu River in Shanghai. According to the Agriculture Ministry, every pig must have an ear tag with a barcode describing the type of animal, administrative region code and county. In addition, the tags must also record the mandatory immunizations the animal has received. Although some of 16,000 floating pigs in the Huangpu could be traced using ear tags, many were either unreadable or were missing altogether. Of course an ear tag does not necessarily contain reliable information either as they are often falsified.

Regulatory environment and enforcement

Both the US and the EU have single overarching agencies that deal with food safety and the food supply chain: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) across the European Union. China on the other hand has, until recently, had a number of government departments dealing with food safety issues: the State Food and Drug Administration, the Ministry of Agriculture, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, and the Ministry of Health to name a few. There have been overlapping and sometimes contradictory implementation of the 5,000+ standards and regulations surrounding food safety by these administrations.

But this is changing. Earlier in 2013 the National People’s Congress approved a new overarching agency: the General Administration for Food and Drugs. It is hoped that this new agency will function in a similar manner to that of the FDA, and will help solve the current problem of different standards being applied across different parts of China. Whether this new agency will improve food safety through enforcement is yet to be determined. Wang Guowei, head of the policy and legislation department at the State Council Food Safety Commission, suggests China is lacking in enforcement abilities and comments, “We have 106,000 regulatory staff, but 10 million registered businesses to watch, and that doesn’t include the tradespeople and hawkers or 280 million farmers.”

Why is food safety still a problem in the West?

From the time a potato is hoed from the ground it may travel across the globe (and sometimes back again, depending on the food item), go through several processing plants, storage facilities, and a series of distributors before finally landing on your dinner plate as mashed spuds. Overly complicated food supply chains like this are now the norm in many Western countries. Take a common snack bar (e.g. muesli bar) sold in the US for example. It can contain ingredients from China, Scotland, USA, Italy, Denmark, Europe, India and the Philippines, with each ingredient potentially passing through innumerable hands along the way. Food safety issues can and do arise from any point during the production and manufacturing process, and the complex nature of the supply chain can make it difficult to trace where food safety issues originate.

The recent horsemeat scandal that spread across Europe perhaps exemplifies trends of increasing globalization and the complexity of modern food supply chains in the West. In one example, beef lasagna and spaghetti bolognaise products in supermarkets across Europe and Britain were found to contain up to 100% horsemeat, potentially contaminated with veterinary drugs. Tracing the origin of this horsemeat from the food processing company in France, led investigators first to a subsidiary company in Luxembourg, then back to another company in the south of France, then on to a subcontractor in Cyprus who then contracted a trader in the Netherlands. From there the raw meat was ordered from abattoirs in Romania (who deny the order was for beef), it then travelled back to France, then on to Luxembourg to be manufactured into the final products before being sent to the supermarkets (source: Simply put, as the number of steps in the food supply chain increases, so to does the likelihood of either accidental contamination occurring (e.g. Salmonella in peanut butter) or opportunistic cost cutting.

Looking Ahead

As food safety issues occur with alarming regularity in China, it is not surprising that some overseas companies are now branding their products as not containing Chinese ingredients. Food safety issues in the West are largely a result of globalization while in China it still comes down to making a profit in a largely unenforced regulatory environment. But things are changing and China is taking steps to improve food quality standards and its capacity to accurately trace the origin of foodstuffs. Let’s just hope that tomorrow doesn’t bring the discovery of arsenic tainted jellybeans, carcinogenic potatoes or melamine-laced milk chocolate.

Related links
Food Safety and Consumer Democracy: A Phenomenon on the Rise in China
Wolf in Sheep’s Skin: Fake and Contaminated Foods in China
7 Things in China That Could Kill You

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Keywords: China’s food industry food production in China food safety issues food safety scandals food scandals Food safety food safety in China


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are any canals, water, soils, or air not polluted?

Jul 08, 2015 20:42 Report Abuse



i would like to believe that if you buy meat/veg from reputed supermarkets like lotte/metro/carrefo/walmart.... it should be ok...

Apr 27, 2013 22:07 Report Abuse



hahaha no, they buy it from the cheapest seller. even hospitals will buy needles and drugs from you if you rock up to them with a good deal. no questions asked.

Apr 30, 2013 12:15 Report Abuse



"One man's meat is another man's poison" used to be a proverb. Seems it's up for literal translation now. Ugh! Fine article but a bit worrying for us folk living and working here.

Apr 27, 2013 12:30 Report Abuse



Great article! You really delved into the food safety issues in China. We can only hope that they step up the game and find a way to nip that kind of opportunism in the bud.

Apr 27, 2013 10:25 Report Abuse



Regardless of how bad it seems, some balance is required when considering the extent of food safety related issues. I am not for one second pretending that everything is fine and dandy. There are certainly horrific cases and weaknesses in the food supply chain. But an awful lot of food is produced in China and more than 99% of that put into the export market passes international standards. Some food producers in China operate to exceptional and high levels of food safety and quality. China needs better regulatory standards that are capable of taking out the bad boys. There is nothing wrong with the legislation that has been enacted in China. The Food Safety Act is as strong if not stronger than other international standards. As the article says, the penalties are certainly a tough deterrent. The weakness is enforcing the standards because of the sheer scale of food production and because of less than professional inspectors at ground level. The China Inspection and Quarantine Service would be well advised to take more foreign advice on board before it's too late!

Apr 27, 2013 06:43 Report Abuse