09.24.11

Hunger breeds discontent

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The direct translation of an old Chinese saying is “people regard food as their heaven” (min yi shi wei tian, or food is what matters to people). However, the average person’s heaven seems broken in the Middle Kingdom. Chinese people still feel insecure about what they eat on a daily basis because nowadays food safety incidents are more frequent than ever.

Recently, the main character on the stage is refined trench oil. It is used as industrial oil in developed countries, yet in China, it hides in restaurant dishes. News media discover that small restaurants in different provinces mix cooking oil with refined trench oil, which contains tens of carcinogens as a way to reduce costs.  A professor said that the chance of encountering refined trench oil when you dine out is 10%.

Chinese government agencies started another special campaign against refined trench oil. As usual, several suspects were put into jail. However, it is hard to find refined trench oil through normal lab tests under the national standard for cooking oil, which does not include indicators referring to any illegal substance.

A lot of columnists claim that the root of the problem is lack of supervision. I agree. But deeper reasons exist.  For one, if the implementers lack incentives to protect the average person’s rights, no matter how good the laws and regulations are, they are only on paper. The underlying principles are deeply troubling. Different food standards apply to food consumed by population groups differentiated by countries and social classes.

One example is that the quality of food exported to developed countries is normally higher than the food eaten locally. For instance, Nestle China responded that its infant food products sold in China were qualified under the Chinese standard when Swedish researchers exposed the residue of arsenic and cadmium in Nestle’s rice based food sold in Europe this April. Chinese media then discovered that the amount of heavy metal residue allowed in infant food under the Chinese standard is several hundred times higher than the European standard. And infant food is not the only category in which China has lower standards than other countries.

The standard for exported is higher, and the compliance is better. According to the quarantine and quality testing bureau, 99.8% of exported food passes the quality test, compared to only 90% of food eaten domestically, which meets a lower standard applied to the mainland market. It could be that the manufacturers of exported food are more capable of quality control and compliance. But the result shows that at least some of the food producers are able to provide safer food. The local standards should be improved, and the manufacturers need to comply with the standards more effectively.

Not surprisingly, high-quality food also exists for the mainland market. But it is not always accessible to average people because it instead goes to meet the “special needs” of the privileged social class, namely some government agencies. In May 2011, a news article revealed the mechanism of meeting the special needs (te xu gong ying) of government agencies. At least some agencies have their own farms, which produce safe and organic vegetables, fruits, and meat for government employees. The State Council has a special need food supply center to serve central government bureaus and retired officials. Manufacturers chosen to supply food feel proud of themselves, and sell their products at much higher prices as proof of quality and prestige.

My American colleagues inform me that U.S. officials do not enjoy special privileges in food consumption. They believe that the officials eat the same things as other Americans because their needs are not special—in fact almost everyone’s needs and expectations about food are reasonable and simple—safe, nutritious, and affordable. And no one should suffer under-qualified food just because he or she does not belong to a prestigious social class.  The government of every country has the obligation to make sure the food consumed in its jurisdiction is safe, because people are entitled to the right to food.

At a recent food safety conference in Beijing, I heard many Chinese officials talking about how policies should be human-oriented. At least that is what they said. And it was good to see that they were willing to communicate with U.S. food safety experts and Chinese scholars on key issues such as risk evaluation and safety standards. Yet whether the conference will help decision makers in China implement laws, regulations and policies to guarantee food safety that benefits all Chinese people—that is an issue that still awaits testing.

When I was looking for an appropriate translation for the Chinese saying at the beginning of the post, a corresponding Western saying caught my eyes—“hunger breeds discontent”- If a government does not like discontent, then it must figure out a way to satisfy people’s not-so-special needs soon.

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