Food Safety in China. Where Everything is Suspect.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 6:43
Posted in category The Big Picture

It seems like on a weekly basis there is at least one story about food quality, and while some would say that the very fact that the media is (able) to report on issues of food quality is a step forward, for me there is a still long way to go.

The lead paragraph of the NYT blog From Milk to Peas, a Chinese Food-Safety Mess says it all:

There’s mercury in the baby formula. Cabbages are sprayed with formaldehyde. Gelatin capsules for pills, tens of millions of them, are laced with chromium. Used cooking oil is scooped out of gutters for recycling, right along with the sewage.

Accounts of dubious or unsafe food in China are as mesmerizing as they are disturbing

[…] A new investigation by the Chinese magazine Caixin has found that these publicized food safety scandals represent only a fraction of unsafe food production practices. Hundreds of chemical food additives are pumped into products that Chinese people consume every day.

So many problems the media cannot keep up.  Not sure if that is a sign of progression in the sense that things are getting better, or if it is a sign that the problems themselves are progressing so fast that what we are in fact seeing is a food safety issue that places the larger population at risk.

ANOTHER NYT’s Oped piece China’s Corrupt Food Chain makes mention of ANOTHER investigation by ANOTHER media outlet. One in which the following statement about the root cause of the failures was put forward

[..] China’s food-safety problems highlight both the collapse of the country’s business ethics and the failure of government regulators to keep pace with the expanding market economy. Yet an excessive focus on poor government oversight often means that the much graver problem of disintegrating civic morality is neglected.

Which leads me to a few comments

1) While there is certainly a place for researching ethics as part of the problem, the real problem for me is (and always will be) the fragmented system that is China’s food system and the fact that the controls that are in place to manage safety are clearly not keeping up.  the average farm in China is about 1 MU of land (660sq m / 6600sq ft), and the average farmer has less than 10 head of livestock that they take to market.

This is a problem for a couple of reasons.

First, regardless of how well the farmer (each farmer) tends to their crop/ livestock, this is a system that sees HUGE variance in quality.  Water sources are different, seeds are different, application of pesticides/ herbicides/ etc are different, and as a result little scale can be achieved by the farmer.  Which in turn creates pressure on distributors/ consolidators to separate the different quality levels (economically).

Pressures that, as we saw in 2008 with the milk scandal, create numerous opportunities for product adulteration .

2) Equally important to the underlying fragmentation is also the robustness, or lack there of, systems meant to insulate consumers from issues of product safety.  And yes, in saying this I know that no system is perfect, and that problems still exist in the US and EU.  However in China, what is of particular concern to me, and what should be of utmost concern tot he industry is not the occasional salmonella or e coli breakout, but stopping the frequent (and egregious) cases of product tampering.

In 2008 public ire was at a peak with 300,000 children were sent to the hospital with kidney stones as contaminated milk made its way onto the market, through the testing systems of nearly EVERY milk producer that existed in China.  It was a classic “China” moment where provincial level officials were able to keep the story quiet for some time, as they were concerned with how things would “look” to the international press covering the Olympics.

It is a problem that persists even to this day in the industry as still no system has been put in place.  At least, no third party system, and in using sing milk as the anecdotal case the proves the system is a failure, it is not simply that problems occur, it is the fact that they occur in the same industry, on a regular basis, and it still takes MONTHS before a recall is announced. Well after any consumers could do anything.

But I could equally use cabbage, fake eggs, exploding melons, hormonal pork, or any one of the hundreds of sauce or powdered based items in China to prove the exact same point.

3) At the consumer level, food safety is a problem for a couple of reasons, the most obvious being the fact that people are getting sick (and sometimes dying). Second to that, and where this issue reaches into the psyche of consumers, is that consumers who are concerned about issues of food safety often have to go to great lengths (and expense) to ensure they quality and safety of the food they are eating. For some, that means purchasing organics, but for others this means going to the farm directly to hand pick what they are going to purchase. A trend that is now seen in a number of cities, particularly in new families where mom/ dad are worried about the health of their newborns.

It is a situation that has rippled out of China to other parts of the world as consumers engage in overseas bulk purchasing of “safe” products to be sent (by the suitcase) back to China. With one firm I worked with seeing roughly 30 million USD worth of product be diverted to China in 2009 alone.

Which leaves to a simple conclusion

At present, what we are seeing is that consumer trust of food in China is very low. From the food itself, to the oil it is cooked in, to the handling of problems as they arise. There is no feeling of safety, and at the same time, for many there are no alternatives. Organics are suspect, and buying 2 years of baby formula from overseas is prohibitively expensive, so many consumers simply resign themselves to doing the best they can.

That is a dangerous place to be for the food industry, and the agencies who are supposed to be developing (and managing) china’s food supply chain.

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9 Responses to “Food Safety in China. Where Everything is Suspect.”

  1. Renaud says:

    August 21st, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    Is the source of the problem really the size of farms? Most the dangerous behaviors happen during transport/warehousing (formaldehyde on cabbage…), industrial processing (milk…), and finishing (cooking oil in restaurants), don’t they?
    I agree with the general fragmentation idea, and with the inadequacy of controls, though.
    When will an NGO start to control and “label” some brand products in China? Would the government allow it?

  2. Rich says:

    August 22nd, 2012 at 8:04 am


    For me, it all starts on the farm. If farms were larger, economies of scale and proces would be achieved, and to your point, control during transportation could be achieved.

    Which is why you are seeing WM, TESCO, and LOTUS working directly with farmers. Moving the system towards scale, quality, and centralized logistics that locks out the consolidators from their food chain and removes the greatest points of risk (for adulteration).

    At this point, the only transparency that I have seen is by Greenpeace. They have an app that ranks major retailers for the amount of pesticides on veg/ fruit. ..and I don’t think the gov’t will allow much more than that at this time


  3. Food Safety in China. Where Everything is Suspect. | All Roads … | Food News Gator says:

    August 22nd, 2012 at 8:57 am

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  4. Renaud says:

    August 22nd, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    I see… Yes, good point. The farms don’t need to be huge (I see a lot of small farmers in France selling directly to supermarket chains), but it won’t work if they are at a micro scale.

  5. Rich says:

    August 22nd, 2012 at 8:00 pm


    Any idea on the size of the size of “small” farms in France? In the US, a “small” farm is equivalent to some of China’s larger farms.


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    August 22nd, 2012 at 8:37 pm

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    August 23rd, 2012 at 5:53 am

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  9. Tim Banks says:

    September 24th, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Lack of control and corruption , this is perfect ingredients for poor food quality