After Years of Scandal, China Overhauls Food-Safety Laws

The threat of harsh punishments, including the death penalty, may not improve the country’s track record.

A customer in a supermarket in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. (Photo: STR/Getty Images)

Sep 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Past food-safety scandals in China have been so egregious that they sound like urban legends: illegally recycled “gutter oil” sold on grocery-store shelves in major cities, powdered melamine added to baby formula that sickened hundreds of thousands of infants, vinegar that had been mixed with antifreeze, and more.

With nearly half of the population saying they’re disappointed with the country’s standards, China is revising its Food Safety Law for the first time since 2009. The changes, which will go into effect on Oct. 1, include what are widely regarded as the heaviest punishments—both civil and criminal—of any Chinese food-safety laws to date. Other major changes involve placing restrictions “on loans, taxation, bidding, and land use” on companies that violate the law, according to the Xinhua News Agency. The China Food and Drug Administration will also increase rewards for whistle-blowers. Hua Jingfeng, deputy head of public order administration at the Ministry of Public Security, has also stated that he wants police units trained in food crimes, Xinhua reports. Notable food-safety trials may also be publicized via live broadcast to raise public awareness.

Previously, a number of authorities had been responsible for various aspects of the laws and their enforcement. “The involvement of so many authorities also cause problems of coordination from enactment to enforcement,” Bian Yongmin, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, wrote in the journal China Perspectives. The government seems to be focusing on streamlining responsibilities between agencies.

Despite China’s often-harsh penalties for violators, curbing food-safety abuses has proved difficult, and it’s unclear whether these updates to the law will have much of an effect. As far back as 2011, the Supreme People’s Court decreed that convicted suspects in cases in which people died would be given the death penalty, while perpetrators of nonlethal cases would face extended prison sentences and increased fines.

Judging by the news, the threat appears to ring hollow. In June, Chinese authorities seized 800 tons of smuggled meat—some dating back to the 1970s. In January, CNN reported, a quality control specialist announced that Chinese food processing plants failed to meet standards set by Western food trading companies and retailers in nearly half of inspections.

A report by the National Agricultural Law Center cites the country’s large population and high percentage of subsistence farmers, as well as the small amount of arable land and food processors compared with population and demand, as “structural hurdles” that make it hard for the country to properly regulate its food supply. As a result, citizens have been finding ways to work around food-safety issues—mostly by assuming that most Chinese-produced foods are unsafe and avoiding them accordingly.

Those Chinese consumers who can afford it are switching to imported or organic foods. At roughly 1 percent of total food consumption, organics are still a small industry in China, but, as CNBC reported, the market has tripled since 2007.

International importers such as the U.S. will block shipments from China if they are found to not hold up to domestic food-safety standards. Though U.S. imports from China increased from $880 million in 1996 to $4.2 billion in 2006, there are often issues with China’s agricultural exports. A USDA report cites “filth,” unsafe additives, poor labeling, and drug residue in fish and shellfish as reasons the FDA has refused food shipments from China.

Many are skeptical of the government’s ability to enforce the laws, strict though they may be. When food-safety regulations were last revised in 2009, the rules themselves were seen as progress, but as Time reporter Austin Ramsey wrote, China’s “legal system still struggles with corruption and a willingness of some local authorities to prioritize growth over health and safety.” Egregious violations still regularly make the news, so it appears as though the last revisions of the law simply weren’t enough. As long as there is money to be made and the hope of keeping food fraud under the radar, violators are likely to continue rolling the dice.