Food businesses, government and consumers in China should prepare for many more food safety scandals, because they are likely to come. What sounds like bad news for consumers actually is not. It does pose a challenge to public officials and firms though.
China’s food safety regulation has developed considerably over the last years. Without doubt, the Chinese government is strongly committed and introduced a number of changes to improve the situation. For example, the confusing fragmentation of responsibilities within the government has been reduced. The food safety law, a major step in 2009, is currently under revision. Government experts work on decreasing the over 5000 partly overlapping food safety standards, At the same time, capabilities for inspections are constantly built up. China even actively engages in international food standard development. The task is immense and needs time but improvements have been made and are under way. This is good news for consumers in China.
If regulation is improving, why will there be more food safety scandals? The reason is what can be called the paradox of food safety regulation. For the Chinese government, national and international food businesses this paradox poses a huge challenge. Food safety scandals will appear, exactly because regulation is getting better. The stronger China’s regulatory compliance system becomes, the more problems will be found. This in turn will attract media attention and there will be many more reports about food safety violations.
When authorities increase pressure on food producers, there are more news about successful crackdowns. Take the tainted pig feet which were found on a market in Beijing: if the police would not have discovered it, there would not have been media reports. Also, as the government makes stricter rules, for producers, what was ok before suddenly becomes illegal. Not all adjust quickly to these changes. Especially small scale producers, of which China has so many, struggle with staying up to date. This again leads to more news about food safety violations – although it has not gotten worse. What is more, scientists are getting ever better. They now find problems, they were not able to see a couple of years ago. Again, this leads to reports about contamination of food. And again, it does not mean that there was no contamination when there were no reports. With China’s authorities building up their laboratory equipment and skills for such food analyses, it is more likely that they also will find more contaminations. It is therefore important for food manufacturer to implement systems and tools to manage regulatory compliance to quickly adapt products to ever changing regulations.
The real problem for government and companies is that those reoccurring reports about food safety violations increase the wariness of consumers. Every news, even when in fact it is a report about a successful crackdown, at the same time is a vivid story about disgusting, sometimes even frightening, food production. From psychology we know that vivid stories stick especially well in our minds. Thus, an improvement of the situation, better regulation, stricter standards and more inspections do not itself make consumers feel safer. Not being experts, consumers do not differentiate between food adulteration that might not even pose a safety threat and more severe safety violations. Thus, government and business face a huge communication challenge.
The Chinese government is preparing for the paradox. Overlooked by many, the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment (CFSA) also hosts a risk communication division which gathers a number of experts. Likewise, on a conference in August in Beijing, a representative from the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) presented a well advanced concept for risk communication. One of the lessons from the this year’s incident with the Chinese subsidiary HUSI of the US meat supplier OSI is, though, that business also would do well in preparing for the paradox.