China’s Communist Party worries greatly that popular distrust of the safety of the country’s food supply may turn into distrust of its right to rule. Ever since the melamine-tainted infant formula scandal of 2008, its administrative might has been directed at calming and cajoling a disconcerted citizenry on this point, with at best mixed results as one tainted food scandal has followed another. The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (Aqsiq) shut down great swathes of the dairy industry in April. It also said it would continue to step up its inspections, on the lookout for both health risks and officials who turn a blind eye to food safety violations, a significant problem at local level. In addition, the food safety law has been amended to impose harsher punishments, including the death penalty, in such cases.
The result of those investigations has been 2,000 arrests and 5,000 businesses shuttered, mostly all small enterprises. The numbers sound impressive until set against the scale of China’s food industry. Nearly 6 million food producers were inspected. Yet only one in a thousand was found to have been adulterating food with illegal additives? Little wonder that consumers’ confidence that their food won’t sicken or kill them remains so low.
Little wonder, either, that citizens who can afford to are taking matters in to their own hands. The China Law Blog reports processed food being carried across the border from Hong Kong in prodigious volumes, with custom officials apparently turning a blind eye to it’s well-heeled porters; the BBC reports middle-class professionals–lawyers, programmers, teachers and the like–taking to allotments at weekends to cultivate their own fruit and vegetables. Neither development will sit well with a Party that, for all it’s efforts, can’t keep a basic bargain with its people to keep their food supply safe.