June 25th, 2012 | Global Times Government can’t tackle food safety alone
Food safety has become a massive concern in China in recent years, with scandals ranging from the use of “gutter oil” in restaurants to contaminated pork to poisoned milk. Is the government doing enough? Why is public trust in food safety so low? The Beijing News (BN) interviewed Chen Junshi (Chen), academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering and senior researcher from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention under the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety, on these issues.
BN: Though you’ve been repeatedly slammed for it online, you still claim that “compared with other countries, China puts more efforts into food supervision.” Why is that?
Chen: The Chinese government has made considerable efforts on food supervision. For instance, a number of regulations regarding food safety have been issued and the frequency of routine examinations is guaranteed.
Some of China’s food security standards are much stricter than that of some developed countries, including microbiological and bacterial flora criteria. Moreover, the public security authorities have set up special teams to crack down fake and poor quality food. Measures like this are not common in other countries.
However, setting up a series of strict regulations should not be the end of the story. It means neither perfect government supervision nor zero hidden dangers. In fact, problems within the area of food safety are severe, and they keep haunting Chinese people.
BN: There are many loopholes in the supervision process. Will these supposedly regular examinations and special campaigns end up merely a matter of form?
Chen: Admittedly, the issues you mentioned do exist in some places in China. But we cannot go to extremes on this point. When it comes to food safety, ordinary Chinese people tend to believe that the government should be in charge of everything.
Under the circumstances, if there are food-related scandals, the government is always the only party people blame. However, it is not the whole picture. Food manufacturers ought to take more responsibility than the government.
I have always stuck to this stand. If the food producers don’t act in good faith, none of the regulations will take effect, no matter how strict they are.
BN: Various brands and many production links are revealed to be involved in the countless food scandals. Have Chinese food companies collectively lost credibility with the public?
Chen: Food safety is indeed one of the most challenging social issues we face. In a rapidly developing country, food safety is an unavoidable social problem we need to cope with.
Roughly speaking, there are millions of small- and medium-sized food enterprises in China, from farmers on up. Most of the grain, vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs and milk are produced by a hugely dispersed pool of food enterprises.
Among these companies, the conditions for food production and processing are relatively poor. And sanitary regulations are always violated. Some new issues have come up within the process of industrialization, like the illegal use of additives. Faced with these problems, how can food safety be guaranteed solely by the government?
In the US, there are around 20,000 chicken farms, and 99 percent of the eggs sold on the market are produced by large-scale ones. Small farms are exempt from inspection due to a high compliance rate. When it comes to food safety, national conditions should be taken into consideration.
Though zero risk within the food industry cannot be guaranteed, the government ought to have zero tolerance toward food companies violating relevant production regulations.
BN: Why do Chinese, no matter whether scientists or ordinary people, have no faith in food safety?
Chen: The information channels regarding food safety are not only immature, but also abnormal. A typical example is that government officials cannot get direct information from either the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Health, but only media reports.
It is undeniable that the current situation of food safety is not optimistic. However, it is definitely not as bad as people imagine. Their inaccurate impression is the result of a lack of knowledge about food safety, and thus some misunderstandings toward it.
For instance, the nature of the “dyeing steamed bread” incident was that vendors were illegally faking the bread by adding the banned but not dangerous additive tartrazine rather than violating regulations about food safety. Similar cases are countless, such as the “fake red wine,” and the “fake eggs.” Most of them are fake and poor quality commodities. But in public impression, they are all attributed to food safety problems.
BN: “Gutter oil” is seen as one of the most prominent food safety problems in China. But some argue that since the cost of purifying the oil is high, and it has an irritating smell, it’s impossible that it’s being widely used in restaurants? What’s your view?
Chen: I have expressed similar opinions. I want to apologize for saying that “it’s not possible that gutter oil is being widely used by restaurants.” It was based on our limited knowledge and some insufficient evidence. However, it is also groundless to claim that gutter oil is widely used. We still need more data.
As a scientist, I have the responsibility to provide the public with truth from a scientific perspective, so as to help them form a rational attitude toward the issue of food safety. Scientists need to speak the truths that some government officials dare not to.