Few issues attract the Chinese media spotlight like food-safety – or the apparent lack thereof. And it’s not just China’s newspapers and TV stations running horror stories on hormone-imbued chicken or rice with a side of cadmium. The international press was quick to pounce on the more than 20,000 pigs that floated down a Shanghai waterway starting in March. The coverage went on for weeks, spawning a host of jokes on the “free pork rib soup” that flowed from the taps of China’s biggest city.
The stories get reads because they pose a question consumers must face every day in China: Can they trust what they put in their bodies? However, a huge number of these reports are missing the most pressing aspects of food safety, say Chen Junshi, a medical doctor and a senior researcher at the Beijing-based National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety.
While the Chinese government is routinely accused of controlling the press, it’s actually the media that has led government sentiment on food-safety scandals, Chen said. News reports focus heavily on the illegal usage of additives in food but neglect far more serious cases of food-borne illness. The result is a stalemate in which officials are pressured by the media to deal with mild cases while problems with E. coli and salmonella rage on.
This is the first half of China Economic Review’s interview with Chen Junshi on food safety in China. Check back next week for Chen’s in-depth discussion of cadmium-tainted rice, gutter oil and China’s food safety regulators.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on talking, like this, with people like you, and the government.
Are there specific issues that you are looking at right now?
I’m emphasizing risk communication. I think this is the most important issue in the whole of food safety control in China.
What is risk communication?
It’s the exchange of information on the knowledge of food safety among all the stakeholders: Academia, government, consumer, media, food business.
What’s the state of risk communication in China right now?
Very brief: Negative, misleading, unscientific information. All over China, all the media and social media.
Do you have some specific examples of misleading information?
Too many. Have you heard about the colored steamed bread? That’s the typical misleading case.
What’s misleading about this case?
One major media [outlet] in China reported that the colored steamed bread is a major food-safety event. But actually, this is just one manufacturer in Shanghai. They add citric yellow, a food coloring, into flour to make steamed bread. And they claim it’s corn bread. So this is a fake product. The nature of the case is very clear. But in the media, this is a food safety event.
Citric yellow is a permitted food color in the Chinese food safety standard. But the problem is the scope of its use does not include steamed bread. It can be legally added into beverages, biscuits, but not steamed bread. So this is the illegal use of food additives. But as for safety, it’s okay to use in beverages, it’s also okay to use in steamed bread. It’s a very safe food additive. There is no possibility of over-use. With food coloring, if you add too much, you don’t get the color you want. But it has nothing to do with health.
But when you talk about food safety, and the media says this is a food safety issue, the government has no way to make it clear that this is food fraud [not food safety]. They will take immediate action, and you will not see this product in the market anymore.
As far as I know, in this case, the Food Safety Office of the Shanghai Municipal Government met every evening for three weeks to discuss this very simple event, a so-called food-safety event. In this case, the credibility of the Shanghai government goes down.
So it sounds like there is miscommunication in the Shanghai government.
Yes, because they don’t understand the real best practice of communication, and they are afraid of that. As a consequence, six Shanghai government officials got punished.
With this specific case in mind, what is the best way to deal with this problem?
That’s easy. The government should have organized experts and government officials to have a media conference to tell them the truth. And published articles to tell them: What is the nature of this case? What is the food additive citric yellow? The government has to take very strong, quick action so you don’t have to worry if you bought this product and you consumed it. It’s safe. But nobody did that.
This is a good example of how people are misinformed. Are there many cases where consumers are under-informed and could be eating dangerous products?
The government quite often publishes inspection results in the paper. They always publish something like, which brand of sweetener has saccharine that exceeds the national level, or preservatives, etc. But that’s not enough. The consumer needs much more information.
So then what is the No. 1 food-safety concern in China?
It’s not the food additives. The media makes people believe this is a major food-safety issue in China. It’s food-borne illness. Internationally it is. In the US, if you talk to the USDA, and ask what is their No. 1 priority, it’s food-borne illness. Because this causes disease and death, huge medical costs. Which big cases have been caused by additives? None. Melamine is not a food additive.
If you’re talking about food additives, would this include the recent case where hormones were added to chicken?
No. That’s not an additive. That’s a veterinary drug, illegal use of veterinary drugs.
What are some examples of big food-borne illness cases? Was the recent case of pigs in the river in Shanghai a case of food-borne illness?
There was no evidence that there was food-borne illness. If there were that many pigs, that would cause outbreaks.
I was told that if the pigs were diseased, it was a good thing that the pigs were thrown in the river instead of being sold. Do you agree?
Yes, that would definitely be a source of food-borne illness, if they were sold illegally and if not cooked well.
What are some simple examples of food-borne illness?
It happens all the time. If there are spoiled meat products you get salmonella, E. coli. In the US, the pathogenic E. coli is sometimes in salad and the strawberries [and causes stomach problems]. But in China, if you have some diarrhea, that’s normal. That’s not food safety. Even the government officials say this is disease, not food safety.
Is that point of view incorrect?
Of course it’s incorrect. The No. 1 food-safety issue in China is caused by pathogenic bacteria and parasites like this.
So what are the main challenges in tackling these problems? Is it enforcement on the local level that’s difficult?
No government agency believes this is important because there is much less pressure
on this issue. They put their priority based on pressure, media pressure, social pressure. So the colored steamed bread is a source of pressure on them, and it becomes their priority. Another example is the 45-day chicken. This became a food-safety issue. It’s normal [for a chicken to mature] in 45 days, not only in China. But the news reports that it is negative. It grew too fast. They must have used hormones.
So the government is following the media and missing the bigger picture.
The government is very angry with the Chinese media. Everyone says China is not a democratic country. Then why can’t you control the media?
So how to better control food-borne illness?
First, we have to know how many cases there are every year. Every year the Ministry of Health receives 10,000 to 20,000 cases from all over China. This is less than the tip of the iceberg. The US [Center for Disease Control] announced in 2011, there were 48 million cases every year in the US.
In theory, China should have more cases because of the overall hygienic situation. And if you extrapolate according to the number of Chinese people, that’s a huge number. But the Ministry of Health only knows that there are 10,000 to 20,000. That’s the gap, less than the tip of the iceberg.
Again, this is why this is China’s No. 1 food-safety issue.
Stay tuned next week for the second half of China Economic Review’s interview with food-safety specialist Chen Junshi