Photo via Flickr user Joe Hastings
Holding food producers accountable for the products they market for consumption is essential, but the lack of oversight (or acquiescence of corruption, rather) in China necessitates greater scrutiny of U.S. imports and those who inspect them.
The health and safety of individuals have been threatened by tainted products in nearly every sector of China’s food and agriculture (fruit, meat, vegetables, pasta, steamed buns, cooking oil, etc.), with more than 1,000 cases so far this year, according to the Chinese news service Xinhua. The article states that 57 government staff are under investigation for taking bribes and "for dereliction of duty" in several dozen food safety cases, including drug-tainted pork. Furthermore:
The dereliction of duty by government staff caused huge losses, the official said, giving an example that the infraction of rules by two officials from the animal husbandry bureau of Jiyuan, Henan Province, caused more than 30 million yuan (4.6 million U.S. dollars) in losses.
The two breached rules by not conducting tests of the banned additive clenbuterol, which was fed to pigs to stop them from accumulating fat, on pigs sent to food factories.
Whistleblowers, particularly in China, already have a tough time trying to report wrongdoing in the food industry, despite being in the position to stop contaminated food from reaching consumers. These truth-tellers face even more obstacles than usual when those in charge of monitoring the food supply are actually in cahoots with industry.
But this issue has become so rotten that the government can’t cover it up. Local media has even been given freer reign to report on food safety issues. Police departments in the country have also made efforts to crack down on food crimes, including "publicizing complaint hotlines." Maybe whistleblowers will now be credited instead of silenced, like the father of a foodborne illness victim from the 2008 melamine scandal.
To say that transparency around food production in China lacks integrity is an understatement. The situation is quite alarming given the fact that 1) China is the fourth largest exporter of food to the U.S., and 2) our regulation of food imports is extremely insufficient. A Washington Post exposé earlier this month explained the limited ability of the FDA to inspect Chinese food importers, only being able to focus on certain high volume companies.
Irene Chan, assistant country director for FDA's China office in Beijing, added that "she and her colleagues face language and cultural barriers, and challenges getting data and being told the 'true story.'"
Clearly afraid of getting in trouble, representatives from one Chinese company lied to FDA inspectors and said they didn't ship to the U.S., Time Magazine reported. Even though the agency receives "scores of tips about unsafe imported food each year," the article writes, "FDA inspects only about 1% of the roughly 10 million products shipped into the country annually."
Last week, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor explained that because of the agency's limitations, most import monitoring is performed by third party auditors. He pointed out that they lack standards and may have conflicts of interest, but he claimed that the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act aims to standardize import regulation and address those concerns.
According to Time Magazine, though, the FDA plans to hire hundreds of third-party certifiers to inspect overseas food facilities. One certifier looking forward to reap the benefits of this plan is Bureau Veritas, a French company that already advises Walmart (whose biggest trading partner is China) on how the retail giant's food products can meet U.S. safety standards. A rep from the French firm said he sees the law as an opportunity for more business. I'm not sure how reassuring that is for consumers, but who knows if FDA will even be able to carry out its hirings and actually implement the new law, as funding uncertainty remains.
Food safety reports in China and debate over imports won't end any time soon. What we need are more people within industry and the government that are safe enough politically to stop food scandals in their tracks.
Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.