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Reforming Food Law in China

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REUTERS/China Daily

REUTERS/China Daily

This post was written by Alberto Alemanno, O’Neill Institute Scholar .  It was originally published at . Any questions or comments about this post can be directed to

Barely a day goes by in China without news of yet another food safety scandal. This situation is seriously affecting not only the Chinese’s sentiment of trust towards their local products but it is also disrupting the economic viability of their entire food supply chain. As a result, the Chinese newly-elected leaders are consulting extensively to reform their highly-fragmented and historically reactive food safety system.

The trust that the average Chinese citizen has in the food supply chain hit an historic low. Not even at the time of the Great Leap Forward’s ruinous food policies, citizens were so distrustful of what was placed in the market as food.

This phenomenon is producing a significant number of unintended consequences.

Families are so fearful that food (in particular baby formulas) might be tainted that are massively turning to relatives based outside of China as well as middlemen to source supplies from overseas. Chinese parents and consumers are prepared to pay a hefty premium for food they perceived to be free from the contamination that blights much of the Chinese marketplace. As a result, it is becoming common practice for frequent travellers to China to ‘smuggle’ some food products into the country these days.

At the same time, fears over food safety in China are spurring a growing number and variety of Chinese investments in foreign agriculture, especially in Australia.

Food safety is becoming a big issue in China and has such costly health consequences that President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang will have to pursue it with the same determination their predecessors exhibited in pursuing economic growth from the 1980s. There is now at least official recognition that the environmental downside of economic success has been the widespread contamination of China’s soil, water and air.?

Public anger over bad air, lack of safe food and water quality in China has been rising in recent years, resulting in mass demonstrations.

Responding to public outrage, the government has recently introduced a series of measures — including making public the level of air pollution in Beijing, reforming its food safety legislation and also plans to impose emission restrictions on the steel, coal and petrochemicals industries, among others.

It is no surprise that food safety appeared among the political priorities in Xi Jinping’s inauguration speech at the National People’s Congress that elected him President.

On this occasion he announced that the Chinese government would strengthen the powers of the State Food and Drug Administration (currently split among several too many authorities) in the wake of widespread health concerns over food safety, such as tainted milk and baby formula scandals.

Against this backdrop, on May 10 of 2013, the State Admnistration of Foreign Experts Affaires (FEAC) convened a consultation meeting on the construction of regulation and integrity of China’s food-safety-network at Beijing Foreign Experts Building.

During this meeting, which I had the chance to attend, I discussed – together with Prof. Francis Snyder (Co-Director of Center for Research on Transnational Law, Peking University) – with Mr. Liu Yanguo (Deputy Administrator of SAFEA, Team leader of FEAC), Mr. Yan Weixing (Vice Director of China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment – CEFSA), Ms. Li Ning (Assistant Director of China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment) the future of food regulation in China.

We had fruitful discussion on a draft proposal delivered by Prof. Francis Snyder for the construction of regulation and integrity of China’s food-safety-network. We hope that this proposal will be a useful source of inspiration for future reform.

For more information on this meeting click here

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