China’s food-safety governance system

Food safety is a very high-level concern for ordinary consumers. This is true because the food we eat can poison us or ruin our health, and yet consumers have little ability to evaluate the safety of the foods available in the marketplace. Therefore government regulation of food safety appears to be mandatory in any complex society. 

Regulation requires several things: science-based regulations on processes and composition of the products that are regulated, consistent and disinterested inspection, effective enforcement of regulations and violations, and oversight by a regulatory agency that is independent from the industry being regulated and insulated from the general political interests of the government within which it exists.

China has experienced many food-contamination scandals in the past twenty years, and food safety is ranked as a high-level concern by many Chinese citizens. In his 2012 post on food safety in China in the Council on Foreign Relations blog (link), Yanzhong Huang writes that “in the spring of 2012, a survey carried out in sixteen major Chinese cities asked urban residents to list ‘the most worrisome safety concerns.’ Food safety topped the list (81.8%), followed by public security (49%), medical care safety (36.4%), transportation safety (34.3%), and environmental safety (20.1%)”. And the public anxiety is well justified; (link). In 2012 Bi Jingquan, then the head of the China Food and Drug Administration, testified that “Chinese food safety departments conducted more than 15 million individual inspections in the first three quarters of the year and found more than 500,000 incidents of illegal behavior” (link). Especially notorious is the milk-melamine contamination scandal of 2008, resulting in hospitalization of over 50,000 affected children and at least six deaths of children and infants.

The question of interest here has to do with China’s governmental system of regulation of safety in the food system. What are the regulatory arrangements currently in place? And do these governmental systems provide a basis for a reasonable level of confidence in the quality and safety of China’s food products?

Liu, Mutukumira, and Chen 2019 (link) provide a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the evolution of food-safety regulation in China since 1949. This resview article is worth studying in detail for the light it sheds on the challenge of establishing an effective system of regulation in a vast population governed by a single-party state. The article is explicit about the food-safety problems that persist on a wide scale in China:

Food safety incidents still occur, including abuse of food additives, adulterated products as well as contamination by pathogenic microorganisms, pesticides, veterinary drug residues, and heavy metals, and use of substandard materials. (abstract)

The authors refer to a number of important instances of widespread food contamination and dangerous sanitary conditions, including “spicy gluten strips” consumed by teenagers.

Liu et al recommend “coregulation” for the China food system, in which government and private producers each play a crucial role in evaluating and ensuring safe food processes and products. They refer to the “Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system” that should be implemented by food producers and processors (4128), and they emphasize the need in China for a system that succeeds in ensuring safe food at low regulatory cost.

Increasing number of countries uses new coregulation schemes focusing on a specific type of coregulation where regulations are developed by public authorities and then implemented by the coordinated actions of public authorities and food operators or “enforced self-regulation” (Guo, Bai, & Gong, 2019; Rouvière & Caswell, 2012)…. Coregulation aims to combine the advantages of the predictability and binding nature of legislation with the flexibility of self-regulatory approaches. (4128)

Here is their outline of the chronology of food-safety regimes in China since 1949:

Previous posts have discussed some of the organizational dysfunctions associated with “coregulation” and its cognate concepts (link). The failures of design and implementation of the Boeing 737 Max are attributed in large part to the system of delegated regulation used by the Federal Aviation Administration (linklink). And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission too appears to defer extensively to “industry expertise” in its approach to regulation (link). The problems of regulatory capture and weak, ineffective governmental regulatory institutions are well understood in the US and Europe. And this experience supports a healthy skepticism about the likely effectiveness of “coregulation” in China’s food system as well. Earlier posts have emphasized the importance of independence of regulatory agencies from both the political interests of the government and the economic interests of the industry that they regulate. This independence appears to be all but impossible in China’s governmental structure and Party rule.

Another weakness identified in Liu et al concerns the level and organizational home of enforcement of food-safety regulations. “The supervision of food safety is mainly dependent on law enforcement departments” (4128). This system is organizationally flawed for several reasons. First, it implies a lack of coordination, with different jurisdictions (cities, provinces, counties) exercising different levels and forms of enforcement. And second, it raises the prospect of corruption, both petty and large, in which inspectors, supervisors, and enforcers are induced to look the other way at infractions. This problem was noted in a prior post on fire safety regulation in China (link). The localism inherent in the food safety system in China is evident in Figure 1:

And the authors highlight the dysfunction that is latent in this diagram:

The local government is responsible for food safety information. At the same time, the local government accepts the leadership of the central government and is responsible to the central government, which forms a principal-agent relationship under asymmetric information. Meanwhile, food producers are in a position of information superiority over local governments and are regulated by the local governments. Therefore, the relationship of the central government, local governments, and food producers is multiple principal-agent relationship. Under the standard of fiscal decentralization and political assessment, local governments are both food safety regulatory agencies and regional competitive entities, so the collusion between local governments, or different counties, and enterprises becomes a rational choice (Tirole, 1986). (4134)

It appears incontrovertible that “publicity” is an important factor in enhancing safety in any industry. If the public is informed about incidents — whether food safety, chemical plant spills, or nuclear disasters — their concerns can lead to full and rigorous accident investigation and process changes supporting greater safety in the future. Conversely, if government suppresses news media in its ability to provide information about these kinds of incidents, there is much less public pressure leading to more effective safety regulation. Chinese leaders’ determination to tightly control the flow of information is decidedly harmful for the goal of increasing food safety and other dimensions of environmental safety.

Liu et al describe the progression of food safety laws and policies over five decades, and they appear to believe that the situation of food safety has improved in the most recent period. They also note, however, that much remains to be done:

With the enactment of the 2015 FSL, China developed and reinforced various regulatory tools. However, there are areas of the law and regulation that need further work, such as effective coordination among government agencies, a focus on appropriate risk communication, facilitating social governance and responsibility, nurturing a food safety culture from bottom-up, and assisting farmers at the primary level (Roberts & Lin, 2016). (4131)

These areas for future improvement are fundamental for establishing a secure and effective safety regime — whether in the area of food safety or other areas of environmental and industrial safety. And to these we may add several more important factors that are currently absent: independence of regulatory agencies from government direction and industry capture; lack of freedom of information permitting the public to be well informed about incidents when they occur; and an enforcement system that fails to deter and ameliorate bad performance and process inadequacies.

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