Food Safety meets a Free Press
A rousing article on ‘nationwide scrutiny’ of rural food safety systems in Xinhua last week caught my attention, particularly because on sensitive issues like food safety and quality standards, what Xinhua releases is likely to be not only the official government articulation of a given issue, but also the only articulation of the topic that will be allowed in any Chinese media, government-run or otherwise. So here we have a (mouth)piece that notes, astutely,
People in China’s rural areas are easier to be victims of inferior goods and unsafe foods because of lax supervision and financial difficulties.
How profound. But why is the government suddenly advocating this campaign in the first place? (If you answered ‘saving farmers from food poisoning,’ you might want to pick up a copy of anything written on China in the last ten years). Pressure to address food safety problems comes largely from the comparatively more informed and empowered urban Chinese as well as international businesses hoping to appease foreign consumers who are now terrified of buying Chinese products. The inspections are likely to largely target the same farms and factories supplying the urban and export market. Interesting, though, that Xinhua (and thus the government) are bothering to justify this push as benefiting rural areas at all. Maybe they’re having a difficult time getting the local government buy-in, and think it’s easier to explain that controls are tightening for their own personal safety than the bottom line of international pet food manufacturers.
Let’s take a minute and let that sink in: More pressure for food safety reform in China has come from the death of a handful of American pets this year than from the potential tens of thousands of Chinese citizens who die each year from similar toxins in food. Why the disparity? An official US total of 16 cats and 1 dog died as a result of feed grade gluten and rice protein tainted with Melamine, unofficial estimates reach thousands of pets. I know this because I can find it here and here and here. I can also find the US government’s food safety monitoring data, as it is regularly released and published, good or bad, in the popular press. International newspapers, those not subject to government content control, know that scandal sells, and almost no scandal sells better than one that potentially jeopardizes the entire readership (or their beloved kittens). Companies are desperate to keep their salad dressings, toothpastes, and frozen bagels off the front page, so they double and triple-check their production line for risk.
The Chinese government, in contrast, works hard to disguise the scope and degree of the food safety problem from the general public. Routine monitoring results at the local level are generally either not released or highly suspect. Investigative journalism on issues like this is discouraged, and reporters who push the envelope in controversial areas do so at what appears to be fairly significant personal and professional risk. Two prominent, recent examples: it is common knowledge at this point that reporting on Blue Ear Disease in China’s pig population is being heavily downplayed and controlled, second, when domestic reporters uncovered cardboard being used in steamed bun production in Beijing last June, the journalists were skewered in the domestic press for staging the whole thing, which (the rumor mill indicates) coincided with a convenient purge in freelance (non-contract) television journalists affiliated with CCTV. The reporters involved hired some migrant workers and staged their footage of cardboard bun production, but it is still widely believed that they acted in response to actual information that cardboard was being used in steamed bun production.
Asking local governments to “severely punish producers of fake or substandard goods” assumes that these governments have the technical expertise, resources, and incentives to aggressively enforce food safety policies… which they largely do not. My bottom line is this: the central government’s goal would be better served by turning a profit-motivated journalist corps loose on producers of shoddy, toxic food (or whatever else) and watching these producers go under as their names are smeared across the headlines.
If you read Chinese, check out the Economic Observer’s coverage of media and product safety for more on this same issue. I’m quoted here, although my professional qualifications are somewhat suspiciously inflated.