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UPDATED: August 4, 2014 NO. 32 AUGUST 7, 2014
Pulling a Fast One on Fast Food
Food safety scandal involving Shanghai Husi Food invokes calls for stronger oversight
By Wang Hairong

Blind spots

In recent years, China's food industry has already seen a number of scandals, including melamine-tainted baby formula milk, clenbuterol-contaminated pork and food cooked with recycled "gutter oil."

Foreign fast food chains have not been immune to food safety scandals, either. For instance, in late 2012, Shanxi-based Suhai Group, a supplier to major fast food chains such as KFC and McDonald's, were reported as feeding antibiotics and other additives to prevent chickens becoming sick and making them grow faster. The time for one of their chickens to grow to maturity took only 45 days while normally the process takes months. Early in 2005, KFC was caught adding carcinogenic dye to their food to make it look more appealing.

The 2008 melamine-tainted baby formula milk scandal caused at least six infant deaths and illness of more than 300,000 others. It prompted the Central Government to attach great importance to food safety regulation. In 2009, a food safety law was adopted in China.

In 2013, the government revamped its food safety regulatory system and created an over-arching agency, the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA), to oversee food safety.

Previously, food safety regulation was performed by several government agencies. For instance, the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), the predecessor of the CFDA, oversaw food safety in the catering industry, whereas the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine supervised food safety in the production process and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce monitored the food distribution process. Poor coordination among these organizations was blamed as the source of regulatory loopholes.

After the restructure, the CFDA integrated the food safety regulatory functions of related government departments to ensure more effective oversight. In 2013, China also started procedures to amend the Food Safety Law. The draft was adopted in principle at an executive meeting of the State Council on May 14.

Highlights in the amendment include implementing whole-process management in food production, circulation and consumption, holding local government leaders and regulatory personnel responsible, establishing food safety standards and risk assessment and evaluation standards, as well as rewarding whistleblowers and setting up food safety insurance. The draft will be further amended and then sent to the National People's Congress for deliberation.

After Shanghai Husi Food was exposed as using expired meat, people could not help wondering why the problems had to be exposed by undercover reporters rather than food safety regulators.

According to analysis done by Beijing News, even though the CFDA assumes much more responsibility than the SFDA did, its staff has not increased. A district-level FDA in Shanghai usually has 20 to 30 staff members, making it difficult for them to monitor so many food companies personally. Currently, they mainly supervise food companies by examining their paperwork. Moreover, some regulatory departments may relax supervision of foreign companies.

In addition, large food companies tend to restrict access to their production facilities. One undercover reporter from Dragon TV told Beijing Youth Daily that FDA inspectors were usually required to change clothes and sanitize themselves before entering the plant. The process took about half an hour, which was enough for workers to cover up anything incriminating.

It was reported that when Shanghai FDA investigators arrived at the scene on the night the scandal was aired by Dragon TV, they were stopped by security guards at the main entrance. They were made to wait for about 40 minutes before being admitted into the plant.

"Of the food safety cases exposed all over the world, few were found out by the government, while most were disclosed by employees, rivals or consumer rights protection organizations," Feng Wenxi, a lawyer specializing in food safety issues told Guangdong-based Southern Weekly.

Actually, before sending undercover reporters to Shanghai Husi Food, Dragon TV was tipped off about the illicit practices of the food company by a former employee who had been fired.

But in many cases, people are reluctant to oust law breakers out of fear of retaliation.

In 2011, the State Council issued a circular on setting up an award for food safety whistleblowers. According to Sun Xiaomin, a professor at Shanghai-based Tongji University, 31 provincial-level administrative units in China have set up awards for food safety watchdogs.

In 2013, 784 such awards were granted in Shanghai. Shanghai FDA is taking measures to encourage whistleblowers to speak up, an unnamed official told Southern Weekly.

On July 27, the Shanghai Municipal Government held a special meeting on the incident. The meeting was chaired by Han Zheng, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and Party Chief of Shanghai. Han stressed that government regulatory departments must exercise the strictest supervision over food safety.

Han praised the media for its role in uncovering the illicit practice of Shanghai Husi Food, and said that reporters and whistleblowers will be protected. "Any company breaking the law must be severely punished according to law," he said.

Legal penalty

Penalties for malpractices such as producing or selling putrid, deteriorated, spoiled food or expired food are specified in Article 85 of China's current Food Safety Law.

According to the article, regulatory departments should confiscate illegal gains, illegally produced or distributed food, as well as utensils, equipment, raw materials and other articles used.

In addition, perpetrators that have produced less than 10,000 yuan ($1,587) worth of food illegally shall pay a fine between 2,000-50,000 yuan ($317-7,937), while those having illegally produced food worth more than 100,000 yuan ($15,873) shall pay a fine that is between five to 10 times the value of such food produced. If the circumstances are serious, the violator's license will be revoked.

Article 143 of China's Criminal Law also stipulates that "Whoever produces or sells food that is not up to hygiene standards, thus putting consumers at risk of food poisoning or diseases caused by food-borne bacteria, shall be fined between half and two times the amount of earnings from sales."

The article also states that such violators can be sentenced to prison terms ranging from criminal detention of no more than three years to life imprisonment depending on the seriousness of the harm done.

Some people think that these penalties are not severe enough to deter food safety misconduct. China Youth Daily analyzed 2,000 messages posted within two days after the Shanghai Husi Food scandal was exposed. About 20.1 percent of these messages were calls for more severe punishment.

According to China Youth Daily, the draft amendment on the Food Safety Law has raised the maximum penalty for such misconduct to 30 times the value of illegally produced or distributed food.

Email us at: wanghairong@bjreview.com

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