Food and drug regulators in China have been ensnared in a power struggle that has lasted nearly a decade. Control over how the country makes its edible industries safe has been the rope in a game of tug-o-war between the Ministry of Health, the State Food and Drug Administration and several other agencies or ministries that hold some share of the responsibility for what Chinese citizens swallow.
A breakthrough came in March when regulation was consolidated into a smaller number policymakers and enforcers. Still, the drawn-out process was not without its casualties. Numerous food-safety scandals rocked China during the past 10 years and several cases since the beginning of the year have attracted international media attention.
One side effect from years of fragmented food regulation is poor inspection practices, says Chen Junshi, a medical doctor and a senior researcher at the Beijing-based National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety. The officials responsible for ensuring that only clean food reaches the Chinese dinner table are often unqualified, he says. Oftentimes, when infractions are discovered, inspector’s act to quiet serious safety infractions. The central government must play a greater role in making sure officials across the country are doing their jobs, Chen argues.
This is the second half of China Economic Review’s interview with Chen Junshi. Click here to read the first installment of Chen’s discussion on misleading media reports and the seriousness of food-borne illness in China.
How has the consolidation of government agencies after the National People’s Congress helped to resolve some of the problems in food-safety regulation?
Definitely it improved the situation of so-called fragmentation. Because many problems happen because of fragmentation.
The clenbuterol case happened with pork meat [158 pigs in Henan province were found to be contaminated]. Who is going to be responsible? Nobody, because of fragmentation. But now it’s very clear. It’s either the Ministry of Agriculture or the new Food and Drug General Administration. Nobody else.
But how do those two decide who is in charge of pork cases?
It’s not very clear yet. But in principle, the Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for the primary agriculture product at the farming level, edible crops and livestock. After that, it’s the Food and Drug General Administration.
So it sounds like the fragmentation has been reduced, but there is still some level.
But that’s acceptable. Two agencies, like the US. The major issue now is the working model of these agencies.
What do you mean by that?
Do you know how the Chinese inspectors do their job when they go to the food enterprise? I suggest you go have a try and see.
Is there not much real, on-the-ground inspection?
Yes, that’s the real problem. That’s not the correct way. They fully rely on sampling and testing. The inspector goes to the food enterprise, they walk around and they just check the records. They see [the factory has] their GMP [Good Manufacturing Practice certificate] and some have their HACCP [Hazard and Critical Control Points certificate]. They just check the record and say, “you are GMP and you are HACCP.” They need to check whether the [way they produce the food] is correct, whether [regulations are] implemented or not. They never do that. They never look at the manufacturing process.
So they’re just looking at the record, not what’s really going on in the factory.
One exaggerated example: They even see the flies, but they don’t care. They just do the sampling and testing. Because, on one hand, they don’t have the professional knowledge. On the other hand, they want to protect themselves. Low risk.
Protect themselves from…
From making mistakes. Sampling relies on the laboratory report. Did it comply or not comply? That’s easy. That’s no risk. If it’s compliant, then good. If not, we have a problem. You need to understand, what is the background of those inspectors. We have millions of them, from different, fragmented agencies. AQSIQ [General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine], they have their own system. The Industry and Commerce Administration, they have their own inspection system. And the Ministry of Agriculture has their own system. But they don’t talk to each other. Mostly they are not well trained.
Taking a look at the cadmium rice scandal, is this another example of misleading information in the media?
In the media, the report is factual. No exaggeration. But the risk communication is a huge factor in this case. It happened in a limited area in Guangzhou. Only in certain restaurants, not well known. They collected a small number of samples. Less than 40, and almost 50% exceeded the maximum limit of cadmium in rice.
When the people read the news, they think it’s terrible. It’s not these 40 samples, it’s all the rice we are eating, everyday.
At the national level we know very well because the government is carrying out a surveillance program, covering all 31 provinces, 800,000 data points every year, analyzing everything including cadmium. Nationally, about 5% of rice contains cadmium that exceeds the maximum limit. This is quite acceptable. Even though we have much stricter limits than the international standard, because rice is our major staple.
The problem in risk communication is that the central government does not take immediate action to have an education program to say what kind of data we have. It’s very easy to explain why it happened in those limited samples. Those are small restaurants. They buy rice from Hunan [province] businessmen who sell cheap, unqualified rice. That’s why, at the same time in Guangzhou supermarkets, there are no problems. If you extrapolate, 50% would be a real issue. In Hunan, they are aware of this problem. They have a high rate of cadmium contamination because of industry and mines. They can’t sell in the normal market, but there are some illegal channels.
What’s the central government’s role in this?
Here, they try to avoid the problems. They try to make it smaller and smaller. That’s the strategy of the central government. This is the local problem, so [they say, local governments] you deal with it. This is Guangdong province, so you deal with it. At the central level, they try to sit in the back.
There is no transparency and that means no action. They need to improve the situation. This happened two years before. Hunan province is very nervous about this. They ask the central government to control the media, but they don’t take their own responsibility to improve the situation. And the central government, as long as it’s quiet, they don’t care if Hunan takes action or not.
The Ministry of Agriculture, actually they have the responsibility because it’s rice. But they ask the Ministry of Health to change the limit [on acceptable cadmium levels] from 0.2 to 0.4, so there will be much less rice that does not comply with the regulation. They don’t solve the real source of the situation.
How do you appraise the issue of digouyou [gutter oil]? Is this something that needs serious attention, or has it been blown up in the media?
Both. It’s a real issue. Chinese people are too smart. No scientist can imagine that you can use such a low cost to get this excellent result. Even our
oil industry experts say, no way, it should be a much higher cost to treat the digouyou into an edible oil. But they proved them wrong. Chinese people are very smart.
What are the real health risks associated with it?
This is not the issue, because this is illegal. It’s an illegal source of raw material for cooking oil. That’s it. Whether it’s really harmful to health, that’s not important. But since you asked the question, I can tell you, the real, very well-treated digouyou is better than the normal oil in the market. If you test it with advanced instruments to check the peaks of fatty acid in the oil and impurity, the digouyou has less impurity because it’s treated, filtered. It has less abnormal peaks.
I ask because I like eating street food. I’ve always wondered if I’m in danger.
If it’s highly oxidized, the smell is not acceptable. Even for street food, it’s not acceptable by the vendor.
So I’m safe to eat street food then?
I don’t recommend it.
Click here to read the first installment of Chen’s discussion on misleading media reports and the seriousness of food-borne illness in China.