Linden J. ELLIS, Jennifer L. TURNER, and Rongkun LIU

Uninspected shipments arrive from the countryside daily in private vehicles like this into to be sold in city markets during the epidemic bird flu problematic time. Even though local news report an increase in monitoring, little change can be seen. PHOTO BY ROBERT EATON.

Food safety has become a major issue in recent years as the global marketplace has expanded and consumers around the world call for imported, affordable foods. China is a major player in the international food market, but recent cases of tainted foods appearing in domestic and foreign markets have dampened consumer confidence and damaged China’s export economy.

China is the largest exporter of food products in the world, with the United States a major market. According to World Trade Organization (WTO) statistics, China’s total food exports reached $53.3 billion in 2005 (although Chinese government statistics show only $27 billion for 2006), which is about 7 times the $7.5 billion it exported in 1980. Regulation of food safety has long plagued China because of weak monitoring capacity, strong local government protectionism of industries, and few consumer-protection watchdogs. The growing safety problems with food exports—ranging from food bans by the European Union (EU) and Japan to the recent melamine-tainted dog food scandal in the United States—are bringing global attention to these deficiencies and creating a unique opportunity for international partnerships to address them.

Consumer Concerns

Chinese consumer demands plus an explosion of negative news media attention on food exports have greatly accelerated food safety reforms, new laws, and crackdowns within China. As global trade in food has grown, so has consumer demand for food safety. For example, the food safety expert Paul Young (Waters Corporation) highlighted recent surveys in Japan and the EU that reveal consumers are increasingly willing to pay higher prices to ensure the safety of their food. Food safety is not just a concern of consumers, however, it is also important to governments and businesses to ensure the integrity of the agricultural export markets. This is a particular concern for the United States, which has historically enjoyed a favorable balance of trade with food products, but is now losing that edge as many emerging countries around the world—such as China and Mexico—are expanding their food export markets.

Food Safety Regulation Structures in EU and Japan

According to Paul Young, a successful food safety regulation structure must include the active collaboration of the government, food safety technology leaders, and the food industry. An effective food safety system must be comprehensive, for relying solely on testing imports is reactive and potentially expensive if done in isolation. Conversely, simply depending on a third party or exporting country to test is risky and requires monitoring to ensure tests are done well. Ideally, food safety regulations should be internationally harmonized; that, however, has not yet happened. Among exporting countries it has long been considered that the EU has the most stringent legislation. But recent Japanese legislation has matched, or even surpassed, that of the EU. Both of these systems are successful, for a number of reasons.

The European Union

Strengths that distinguish the EU’s food regulatory system are: (1) the regulating body—the European Food Safety Authority—an independent, scientific point of reference for risk analysis ensuring that food safety regulations are based on science; (2) a comprehensive system for traceability of foods; (3) a rapid alert system for food and feed to disseminate information on risks within the European Community; and (4) a requirement that food imported from third countries are produced and tested with the same diligence as domestic produce.

The Japanese System

The strengths of the Japanese system are: (1) compliance to Japan’s food safety standards is ensured through a very high level (upwards of 10 percent) of laboratory testing for imports; (2) the onus is placed on importers to prove the safety of their products by having them tested before the products are allowed to enter Japan. One of the more demanding aspects of the Japanese food inspection regulations is the large list of substances that importers must test.


China’s capacity to effectively protect food quality is hampered by a weak legal, political, and regulatory infrastructure that has not forced accountability among food producers and processors. Key weaknesses in China’s food-safety governance system include strong local government protectionism of industries; a lack of a product liability law; and weak monitoring capacity of food products because of the vast numbers of small-scale food producers and processors and competition among regulating agencies. China also lacks an independent court system, which could better protect consumers and company whistleblowers. Consumer education is also lagging in part because of few consumer watchdog organizations. Chinese urbanites are now demanding safer food, but answering their demands without addressing the rest of the population may create a dual system of food safety, potentially sparking social unrest. Thus Chinese regulators must design their food safety system around China’s unique political structure.

Chinese food exporters have gained market share mainly through low prices, but these gains could diminish if the quality of goods is constantly called into question. For example, the milk scandal of July 2008 —in which almost 60,000 children were hospitalized in China—affected exports of a wide range of products to many countries and regions.

China faces several key challenges as it tries to ensure food safety for its exports and domestic markets. The first challenge is the structure of China’s food system, with 78 percent of food processors having fewer than ten employees and most farms being two acres or less. The numerous small farms combined with a cash-based and large and fragmented food production system make traceability difficult.

For centuries Chinese farmers have intensely cultivated their small plots, leaving much of China’s scarce arable land depleted. Nevertheless, since the 1990s, agricultural production has grown in China thanks to an extremely high use of fertilizers and pesticides on crops and drugs in animal husbandry. It is not surprising that Chinese agricultural products are tainted by drug and fertilizer residue. It has been estimated that 40 percent of all pesticides in China are counterfeit, further compounding the problem of overapplication with doubts surrounding authenticity and actual content.

The booming Chinese economy has also created food safety challenges. Rapid economic growth has enabled a massive expansion in highways and cell phone usage, which now connect the small farms with faraway markets, further confounding traceability of food products and additives.

China’s rapid growth has created a widening wealth gap, mainly along urban and rural lines. The Chinese government has tried to help stimulate the economy in rural areas, most notably by canceling the agricultural tax and lowering other fees to encourage small business and entrepreneurship in poorer rural areas. The Chinese government faces a difficult situation when the need to protect consumers requires shutting down dangerous food processors and farms that employ the rural poor.

Civil Society

China’s consumers lack a strong civil society, and manufacturers do not have strong independent associations to address their collective interests in ensuring food safety. The government has further reduced incentives of the manufacturers to self-regulate by restricting news media coverage of food safety stories that might cause panic or lack of faith in the government system.

Major class action cases around food safety in China have not been seen mainly because, in cases like the recent milk scandal, the government has rapidly taken action against those responsible. In this and other recent scandals, the government has bowed to the will of “netizens”—mostly fast, anonymous, Web-savvy bloggers—and forced responsible regulators to resign. In the milk case, the head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), Li Changjiang (b. 1944), was forced to resign after netizens found classified government documents and posted them online showing that AQSIQ had turned a blind eye to the developing crisis. And yet when more than 200 victims’ families took the tainted-milk case to China’s highest court to seek long-term care, some were arrested. This case caused massive mistrust of the government’s food safety initiatives.

Although China faces many challenges to ensuring the safety of its food supply, the government has set up a coordinating committee under Wu Yi (b. 1938), vice premier and former minister of health, to examine strategies for improving food safety. In 2007 the government issued a five-year food and drug safety plan and a food safety white paper and carried out campaigns to close unsafe food processors. Chinese food safety regulators are reaching out to international partners to discuss issues of mutual interest; the Asian Development Bank, for example, played a key role in the analysis and development of China’s new food safety structure.

The needs of both the United States and China to strengthen their food inspection and regulatory systems underscore the ample opportunity for collaboration between the governments and private sector companies.

Paul Young noted that China’s prospects for improving its food safety regulation are not as dismal as they may appear today. Thailand had formidable food safety problems beginning in the 1990s culminating in 2002 with the EU mandating 100 percent testing on imported poultry and aquaculture products—the country’s two biggest exports. Thailand’s problems resembled those facing China now—a fragmented food producer system with manysmall farms and companies, in which sources of food products were difficult to trace. The solution is widely regarded as a salutary lesson in dealing with such issues. The Thai government, the food producing industry, and technology leaders worked intensely with EU regulators and international companies to fix the country’s food production and regulatory systems. Young maintained that such a rapid and effective response would not have been possible without the collaboration of the Thai government with willing partners in the Thai producers’ organizations working in partnership with technology solution providers, such as U.S.-based Waters Corporation, to build effective testing programs and production strategies.

Further Reading

Baer, N. (2007, December). Going organic: Certification and projects promoting safer food and organics in China. A China Environmental Health Research Brief. Retrieved February 6, 2009, from

Bi Mingxin. (2007, August). Full text: China’s food quality and safety. Chinese Government Official Web Portal. Retrieved February 6, 2009, from

Ellis, L. J., & Turner, J. L. (2008, September). Sowing the seeds: Opportunity for U.S-China cooperation on food safety. Retrieved February 6, 2009, from

Ellis, L. J., & Turner, J. L. (2008). Surf and turf: Environmental and food safety concerns of China’s aquaculture and animal husbandry. China Environment Series 9. Retrieved February 6, 2009, from

Thompson, D., & Ying Hu. (2007, December). Food safety in China: New strategies. Global Health Governance, I, (2). Retrieved February 6, 2009, from

Source: Ellis, Linden J., Turner, Jennifer L., & Liu, Rongkun. (2009). Food Safety. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 842–845. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

China is increasing advertising and propaganda to encourage consumer confidence in the milk sector. PHOTO BY ROBERT EATON.

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