Analysis: The sheer volume of producers, along with arcane systems of public oversight, means tainted food scandals are a regular affair in China. Beijing would be wise to look westward for business-driven systems of reducing food safety risks.
BEIJING – Food safety has become one of China's biggest public concerns in recent years. From Ractopamine-fed pigs and tainted bread to recycled waste oil and bacteria-filled frozen food, endless food security hazards not only aggravate the already frayed nerves of Chinese consumers, but also challenge the society's moral bottom line. "What is left to eat?," we can't help asking.
China's food safety problems have very complex causes. Rapid development of both the food industry and food science, as well as technological advancements, actually increase the level of risk. Ongoing social transition makes regulation ineffective. The superimposition of these two factors multiplies the risks.
China has to this day relied mainly on administrative measures to safeguard food security, as commercial and sanitary authorities apply standards, regularly inspect enterprises, and conduct quality controls.
To ensure food safety by counting only on administrative supervision is to start out with a handicap. For instance, China has up to half a million major food producers, more than three million independent food business entities, and 200 million farmers. This doesn't even take into account the innumerable food workshops, small stands and vendors. Monitoring this galaxy of food production is clearly no easy task.
Still, food safety is also jeopardized by rampant corruption and the tendency of local governments to pursue superficial, short-term economic objectives. The serious food security issues that have come to light in recent years show that it's no longer possible to deter illegal behavior and the wrongdoing of businessmen merely by administrative regulation.
Protection by capitalism
Hence, the experiences of developed countries are particularly worth learning from. In general, in addition to government monitoring by prevention and controls, Western countries encourage consumers to safeguard their own rights. This is an even more direct and effective way to limit food safety problems.
Take the United States as an example. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration holds a wide range of preventive, control and inspection powers, institutional arrangements encourage consumers to inspect manufacturers and distributors. This establishes a sound and advanced product liability system. Once the food or relative services is found to be defective or otherwise causing damage, consumers are able to demand compensation through litigation or other forms of rights protection. This punitive compensation can sometimes amount to astronomical sums.
In addition, once the food safety information and complaints are gathered together, social media will be able to monitor or expose the criminal businesses in a timely manner. This will affect buyers' choices and put huge pressure on unscrupulous businesses, ultimately forcing them to pay attention to food safety. Obviously, even if the pursuit of maximum profit is the nature of "economic animals," an enterprise will care more about its food safety and quality when its products are related to its own benefits and survival. What China lacks today is precisely this mechanism for connecting food safety with economic interests.
In order to encourage and support consumers in safeguarding their rights, we must first improve the legal system, and in particular fully mobilize the enthusiasm for self-protection amongst individuals. For example, currently according to China's Food Safety Law, if a producer knowingly sells food that does not meet the regulatory standards, consumers can demand a compensation of ten times the original price. However food is a relatively cheap commodity, and a ten-fold punishment is normally not a large enough sum to prompt consumers to seek compensation. It is also quite inconvenient to bring a complaint, and to find legal settlements.
In the long term, all this encourages the food businesses to be even more reckless. Multiple mechanisms such as arbitration, mediation and neutral evaluation systems should be established so as to settle the disputes and resolve problems rapidly. And ultimately, the sums that awarded to injured parties must be worth fighting for. These are the kinds of economic incentives that will ultimately elevate the level of food security in China.
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