Social Development Challenges in China
Tutorial Group 9
Tutor: Miss Stephanie C. Zou
Food Safety in China: The Role of government and new policy implications
Chan Natalie Lai Yee
As the Chinese saying goes, “Food is the god of people”. Although China’s Premier Li keqiang reassured that the State would continuously and strictly clamp down on fake food scandals, China’s reputation being “one of the world’s worst food-safety offenders” may still hardly be refutable1. Food safety, a core in public health, impacts social development directly and significantly. In addition to health deterioration, social panic may arise, harming government legitimacy as people lose confidence on government’s ability to provide “from-farm-to-fork” inspection and protection2.
With the special backdrop of China – a populous developing country with swift economic growth and an authoritarian government, the complexity of food safety problems is acknowledged. Social and economic factors are no doubt shaping the food safety condition in China. Yet, the most integral factor in social development is the government because of their capacity and authority in legislation, jurisdiction and administration. Other unmentioned factors may be the subsequent effect of imperfect procedural regime or bureaucratic structure. Hence, I will mainly scrutinize the liability of Chinese government for the repeatedly occurring food scandals and will suggest a bipartite policy that might rectify the current deficiency.
Accountability of the Chinese government
Being the most salient stakeholder in food safety regulations and policy execution, the government cannot shrink its onus for these food crises due to the following underlying reasons.
1) Ineffective administrative structure
Many structural problems stem from the multi-departmental administrative regime in China. At the outset, the China Food And Drug Administration (CFDA) adopts horizontal coordination, which means branching off the monitoring responsibility to numerous departments, each specializing in overseeing a production stage like food processing or distribution3. Nevertheless, given the complexity in the decentralized food supply chain, this seemingly reasonable division of labour and multiple protection system indeed resulted in a blurred line of duties. Overlap or grey area in responsibility has limited the law enactment effectiveness and exacerbated power dereliction by government officials. Lacking a central and unified agency responsible for monitoring food safety, miscommunication might arise among the self-contained and independent government agencies due to the ineffective coordination mechanism.
To exemplify, in the 2008 Sanlu Milk Crisis, power contradiction excused government agencies from being accountable. Buck-passing and shirking of responsibilities were common. Milk station, an intermediary in milk production chain, was the source of melamine-contaminated milk4. Yet, owing to the regulatory vacuum, meaning there are no authorities responsible for the monitoring work in milk stations, the lax quality control and inspection had accelerated the crisis. Adding fuel to the fire was the absence of power stratification. All departments being at the same rank and owning equal authority, the purported function of checks and balances, and mutual governance among departments had diminished. Even after the Food Safety Commission introduced in 2010, the problem is only partially resolved as it is merely responsible for coordination and guidance but not for jurisdiction5. Specific actions regarding the execution and external coordination still have not been covered.
2) Flawed administrative philosophy
Notwithstanding the recent Special Treatment Actions on contaminated food such as beef extract and dyed buns, food crises still remain inexorable. Apparently, the actions cure the symptoms but not the disease. The problem lies at the heart of central and