Keeping deliberate obstructions of food integrity under control seems like an impossible task for Chinese government officials. Perhaps, however, it’s just a blown-up version of what we face in the U.S., where oversight gaps and inconsistencies across our own food regulatory agencies abound. This Washington Post piece explores the structure of China's food system that has allowed food safety scandals to wreak havoc on a monumental scale:
And just why are there so many food problems in China? The answers, expert said, are complex, involving China’s system of myriad tiny farms, tens of thousands of small food-processing factories scattered across this vast country, and a regulatory system in which enforcement is divided among as many as 13 government ministries and departments.
The American food industry is more consolidated than that of China, a communist country (ironic?), but we’re alike in that food regulation in the U.S. is also split among more than a dozen different agencies (although the division of duties between the USDA and FDA is enough to cause problems). Chinese departments don't split up enforcement roles by type of product -- such as USDA-regulated meat and poultry -- but rather are "only responsible for a certain cycle, such as cultivation, production or sales.” The chief scientist for food safety at China's Ministry of Health acknowledges, because of this, "it's really difficult to control risk with this multi-layered management."
A Chinese website called "Throw it out the Window" was launched in June by "a fed-up 25-year-old graduate student" and a group of volunteers that have tracked 2,230 food safety scandals in the country since 2004.
We have enough to deal with at home (ground turkey recalls, misleading labels, antibiotic-resistance, etc.) let alone worry about the food coming from our number one trading partner. Apparently (according to the Post), FDA has been "increasing inspections of Chinese firms that export products to the U.S. market." But FIC has blogged about the obstacles FDA faces in China, including companies outright lying to inspectors and claiming they don't ship to the states. Already FDA officials can’t handle all the warnings of tainted food imports, only inspecting a tiny fraction of the millions of goods crossing our borders. It’s also interesting to note that FDA is “helping build China’s ‘technical capacity’ to improve its food safety regime” when our own means of regulation (that we in fact carry out) is far from efficient.
There have been a significant amount of arrests and company shutdowns in China, with authorities reporting that they have resolved more than 1,000 cases this year. But as Helena Bottemiller remarks in Food Safety News, "it's difficult to assess the overall impact of the waves of enforcement."
Indeed, the headlines of scandal have continued amidst high-profile crackdowns, with Chinese experts conceding that "the chances of getting caught and punished for producing or selling tainted food remains relatively small." (via WaPo). That's no surprise given China's high number of small food companies and its compartmentalization of enforcement bodies (on top of other conflicting interests and historic stifling of truth-tellers).
The Chinese government's expressed commitment to reigning in this nationwide threat to public health has allowed a unique effort not seen in other aspects of society, however. This not only includes the freedom of more investigative reporting witnessed in the media, but a new government-sanctioned reward program for those who blow the whistle on food safety violations. China has had to go outside its comfort zone, even paying people for the truth, to manage this overwhelming crisis.
If you think about it, our two countries aren't all that different in serious food safety problems. American food industry processing systems, like Chinese ones, are kept hidden, and problems aren’t addressed until hundreds are sickened and a media frenzy can’t be avoided. Both systems have serious oversight deficiencies. With China’s reward program as a potential exception, both countries have failed to take advantage of the workers along the supply chain who witness (and could halt) problems as they arise. Instead, the harassment of employees, in China and in the U.S., who speak up rather than hide what industry doesn’t want the public to know has been the norm.
With a complicated oversight structure and an apparent "lack of ethics among food producers," (from WaPo again) America … uh, I mean China, may have to resort to this encouragement of … yes, transparency, as a solution.
Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.