Beijing's Food Safety Problem
today's Wall Street Journal Asia
Source of Article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122400110147832865.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
y announced that
a massive testing campaign has turned up no contamination in liquid milk made
That's a relief after milk powder tainted with an industrial chemical claimed
the lives of at least four infants and sickened 54,000 in recent months. Just
don't mistake this for a sign that Beijing
has finally solved its food safety problem.
not that Beijing
has been standing idle in the face of the catastrophe. Nearly three dozen
local officials and dairy-industry workers have been arrested. The head of
the national quality watchdog agency, Li Changjiang,
was fired. Beijing
has dispatched 5,000 inspectors to carry on round-the-clock monitoring at
dairies. President Hu Jintao
and Premier Wen Jiabao
have promised to fix the problem.
authorities have taken similar steps in the past, without coming close to a
lasting solution. Last year the former head of the State Food and Drug
Administration was executed after his conviction on a bribery charge
involving approving unsafe medicines. Last year, too, Beijing
banned food exports containing melamine, the chemical additive in the milk
contamination after the pet food scandal in the U.S. The government has beefed up
its food inspections.
all that, consumers still must worry about the safety and quality of the
China-made foods and drugs they buy. That's because Beijing is unwilling to take the additional
steps that might make a real difference.
press freedom. A reporter at Southern Weekend magazine first blew the whistle
on reports of babies possibly sickened by milk powder in late July. Or
rather, he would have if he and his editor had been allowed to publish an
article on the case. Instead, the story fell victim
to a directive from the Propaganda Department forbidding negative reporting
on food safety ahead of the Olympics.
episode shows how China's
media controls make it impossible for the press to serve as an effective
watchdog. Since the milk scandal erupted, Beijing has grown more restrictive, not
less. Publications have been instructed to hew to reports issued by Xinhua,
the state news organ. Online forums have allowed somewhat more room for
discussion of the issue, although online bulletin board posts expressing
anger over the scandal are often deleted.
Beijing has been similarly reluctant to develop
another key component of modern quality assurance: an impartial judiciary
that allows injured customers to seek compensation. A prominent lawyer, Li Fangping, was among the first to try to help the families
of victims of the toxic milk; he and dozens of other attorneys published
their phone numbers online as a makeshift "hotline" before the
government initiated its own effort. He has since been warned off by
authorities in Beijing,
including representatives from the lawyers' association and the Judiciary
Bureau, who have "asked" him to "have more trust in the
[Communist] Party and the government," Mr. Li tells us.
lawyers have filed two cases against Shijiazhuang Sanlu
Group, one of the largest dairies implicated in the scandal, on behalf of
families whose infants fell ill, but the courts have yet to formally accept
the cases. This week also saw the first attempted lawsuit by parents of an
infant who died, though it's not certain yet they'll get their day in court.
Chinese courts frequently dodge politically sensitive cases by refusing even
to read the plaintiff's brief.
if cases were allowed to proceed and even if a court found in favor of a
plaintiff, Chinese law still typically caps damages at the cost of medical
expenses. The perverse result is that a Chinese infant isn't
"worth" as much as an American dog: In the U.S. this week,
thousands of pet owners are near approval of a $32 million settlement over
last year's pet-food contamination case. China
is the unhealthy opposite of America's
runaway tort culture: Without a financial threat from lawsuits, companies
have less incentive to be careful.
Beijing talks a good game about improving food
safety, and no one believes President Hu or Premier
Wen wants to let infants die because of tainted
milk. But until China's
authoritarian leaders are willing to loosen their grip on the media and the
courts, a lasting food safety solution will prove out of reach. Meanwhile,
the cascade of dairy recalls around the world highlights the fact that Beijing's failures are not just China's