Three more child deaths from adulterated milk, the poison being nitrite additives in this case (via BBC), underlines how broken China’s food production system remains despite extensive efforts to fix it in the wake of the melamine-tainted infant formula scandal of 2008. The sheer numbers of small subsistence farmers scrabbling to make a living by any means and the prevalence of local officials overlooking transgressions by local cronies further up the supply chain has overwhelmed the endeavors of central government.
Help may be at hand from an unlikely source: new food safety legislation passed in the U.S. in January. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) tightens the purview of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over imported foods, including inspections at source. In a timely post on the China Law Blog, guest blogger Marc Sanchez, an attorney specializing in food and product safety matters and who writes the Food Court blog, writes:
China is the fourth largest exporter of food to the U.S…..Foreign inspection of Chinese facilities means increase pressure for China to modernize [food production]…China has attempted reform legislation, but its vast food production system remains largely unchanged. If FSMA receives its funding, it will act as a new push for rapid modernization of China’s food safety system. it will place FDA on the ground in China and it will increase border inspection of Chinese food coming into the United Sates. There is no way the FDA can do what the Chinese bureaucracy has been unable (or unwilling) to do, but it can act on China’s pride. China will not want to make the list of countries blocked from being able to export its foods to the United States.
Two comments: First, the U.S. will have to be prepared to fund FSMA foreign food inspections. With budget cutting, not spending, the crie de jour in the U.S. that is not a given. As it is some polls have shown Americans think 15% of the U.S. budget is spent on foreign aid (the actual number is less than 1%) so paying to clean up China’s food supplies, as it will inevitably be portrayed in some quarters of the U.S., will not go over well with some American taxpayers. Second, acting on China’s pride can always be a double-edged sword.
The improvement in quality standards at China’s dairies have been so patchy since the melamine-tainted infant formula scandal in 2008 that Beijing has moved to close down vast swathes of the industry. Operating licences have been denied for 533 milk producers, nearly half the country’s 1,176 dairies. The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (Aqsiq) had said in March that all diaries would have to reapply for their licences by July. It says that 107 of the 533 who have lost licences will be allowed to reapply once they have improved their quality controls.
Local governments have been sending resident supervisors into all dairy enterprises to enforce health and safety regulations since last October when new rules came into force tightening the controls over the production and marketing of melamine, a toxic industrial chemical used to make plastics, fertilizers and concrete but which can increase milk’s apparent protein value. Dairy safety regulations had already been tightened in 2008 in the immediate aftermath of the tainted milk scandal that killed six babies, sickened more than 300,000 children and all but closed down China’s dairy exports that year.
Yet batches of contaminated milk and milk powder have continued to turn up (2,334 tones of it as of February). Some came from 2008 supplies that should have been destroyed but which got unscrupulously diverted into a sort of dairy black market. However, the newly announced licence revocations suggests that long-standing suspicions that some dairy farmers were continuing to pad out their milk with melamine were well founded.
Aqsiq says it will 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 the local level. The newish food safety law has been amended to impose harsher punishments, including the death penalty, in such cases.
Public concern about unsafe food has been intensified recently by the discovery of illegal chemical additives in pork. The latest food safety scare is shrimp soaked in chemicals to give them more weight. Last month the Office of the Food Safety Commission said as well as dairy products and meats, its inspectors are most concerned about the safety of edible oils, health foods, food additives and alcohol. The Party is most concerned that popular distrust of the safety of food supplies may turn into distrust of its right to rule.
On the face of it, the two-and-a-half years jail sentence imposed on Zhao Lianhai for campaigning on behalf of the victims of the melamine-tained infant formula scandal that struck in 2008, is simply bizarre. Zhao, a former editor of a state food safety publication and the parent of one of the 300,000 sickened children, though not of one of the six that died, was convicted of social disorder (via BBC).
The tainted milk scandal all but closed down China’s dairy exports in 2008 and was an embarrassment to the government, particularly domestically. Following an initial cover-up at the local level, central government acted decisively. More than 20 people were convicted in connection with the scandal and at least two sentenced to death. Parents of affected families were offered compensation. Tougher new food safety rules and procedures were introduced last year to restore public confidence in what people were eating and drinking. In September, officials readied a new crackdown on melamine-tainted milk that has still be turning up as the new rules came into force. Just this week, the government said it would become more open with the public with food-safety information.
New regulations from the health and commerce ministries and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine define what information should be publicized and by which government departments. Previously they have been typically bureaucratically tight-lipped, letting food safety information come out mainly through media reports. But “in many cases, from milk powder to the crayfish, false news was occasionally delivered to consumers and this hurt public confidence in China’s food safety and the government’s credibility,” said Deng Haihua, spokesman for the Ministry of Health, the main government agency in charge of overseeing food safety (via China Daily).
Wherein lies the clue to Zhao’s sentence. The credibility of the government’s ability to take care of its citizens over everything from tainted milk and the earthquake resistance of school buildings to getting richer is an important plank of the platform on which the Party’s legitimacy to govern rests. It was severely tested by the tainted milk scandal and the government’s response to it. Zhao’s efforts to publicize the scandal, organize a parents’ self-help group and to get better compensation for families was seen as saying that the government was falling short in protecting its citizenry. That was a direct political challenge. Party strategists have long feared single-issue pressure groups as a potential threat to the Party’s legitimacy to govern and a possible kernel of opposition parties. Thus even single-person pressure groups are not to be tolerated.
Despite the melamine-tainted milk powder scandal that killed six babies, sickened more than 300,000 children and all but closed down China’s dairy exports in 2008, batches of contaminated milk are still turning up, the latest only this month. Some of that is supplies from 2008 that should have been destroyed but which got unscrupulously diverted into a sort of dairy black market. But the suspicion has never gone away that some dairy farmers were continuing to pad out their milk with melamine, a toxic industrial chemical used to make plastics, fertilizers and concrete but which can increase milk’s apparent protein value.
That those suspicions are well founded is supported by proposed new food safety regulations. These tighten the rules on the production and marketing of melamine, including setting up a register of wholesalers to track distribution of the chemical to retailers and getting local governments to send resident supervisors into all dairy enterprises to enforce health and safety regulations, which have already been tightened since 2008. The new rules also call for all dairy enterprises to test their products for melamine before distributing them and for food enterprises to check dairy products they buy.
The new rules come into effect at the end of October. Dairies that break them face being shut down. We also expect an intensifying of the crackdown on any dairy farmer or milk producer found to be using melamine, and the imposition of some exemplary sentences.