Food safety in China

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Chinese proverb says “Food doesn’t harm you but careless words may.” However, you can no longer say “food doesn’t harm you”. Nowadays, people choose food with exceptional caution. They buy vegetables with bugs and soak them for half an hour to avoid pesticides. They won’t choose white noodles because artificial pigment has been added, and the same with chilli sauces. However, no matter how smart you are, there is no way you can stay away from unsafe foods.   

Over the past year there have been a number of food safety stories from China. The stories below demonstrate the risk to consumers, but also to investors in an industry that is now under enormous pressure to clean up its act. With a new food law on the drawing board for 2009, the question remains whether the ‘Made in China’ brand can claw its way back into export (and even domestic) markets.

Sodium cyclamate in jujubes: The Urumqi Health Authority reported the discovery of illegally produced “red jujube” in the Toutunhe District on 18 August. Authorities found 10 tons of raw materials and finished products at the manufactory site. They also uncovered 14 bags of sodium cyclamate, 11 bags of saccharin-sodium, as well as a bag of alum. Workers turned “green jujubes” (raw jujubes) to “red jujubes” (ripe jujubes) by adding soy sauce, and then used saccharin-sodium and sodium cyclamate to make them sweet and tasty. Some of the products made it to market before the authorities could halt sales.   

“Do not eat oranges”: So said a text message that spread rapidly by mobile phone in Guangyuan, Sichuan, around 20 October. The message said that “there are maggots in Guangyuan oranges” and that people shouldn’t eat them. The government tried to hose down what was eventually reported as a rumour, but the case triggered panic among some consumers.

People in China are worried about food safety; and with good reason. In response, China's top legislature approved the Food Safety Law on 28 February 2009, providing a legal basis for the government to strengthen food safety control "from the production line to the dining table." The law, which goes into effect later this year on 1 June will enhance monitoring and supervision, toughen safety standards, recall substandard products and severely punish offenders.

A blue paper issued by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on 2 March states China should strengthen risk management to ensure food safety. The system, it says, should focus on evaluating the biological, chemical and physical dangers existent in food and food additives.

An important component of the Food Safety Law is that it prohibits the Food Safety Supervision and Management Department from giving companies or products an exemption for food tests. This would seem vital now to resuscitate trust in ‘Made in China’ food products.

Food safety is synonymous with a healthy life, so it is essential now that China (including food growers, manufacturers, retailers and various monitoring department) build trust.


Publication date: 3/19/2009


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