Monday, October 7, 2013

Food Safety Responsibilities Blurred

A report issued by a health issues governance research center at Fudan University highlighted some administrative problems that hinder food safety oversight and regulation.

Based on the brief summary released to news media--the full report doesn't seem to be available online--the report noted the complexity of food safety supervision in a supply chain with many enterprises and multiple links. The report said that China has emphasized a complete "farm to table" approach to food safety governance since 2009, but there has been little research looking at the system as a whole and the logical connections within it. Recent incidents--melamine, "sudan red" dye, dyed steamed buns, and clenbuterol "sounded the alarm bell." Setting up effective systems to achieve control is essential to addressing chronic food safety problems, the report said.

The report emphasized regulatory and enforcement problems that prevent food safety improvements. First, China has 840 food safety-related laws, regulations and policy documents. There are different national, provincial and industry standards and China's domestic standards are not harmonized with those of international counterparts.

A second important problem cited by the report is the fragmented and blurred enforcement responsibilities of different government bodies. The fragmentation is in both vertical and horizontal dimensions. There are central, provincial, municipal and local regulatory systems for food safety regulation. Local authorities are often underfunded or their interests are aligned with those of the industries they are regulating. The report cites "improper administrative behavior"--perhaps a euphemism for corruption--as another problem.

In the vertical dimension there are different departments with responsibilities for different parts of the supply chain: agriculture departments for farming, commerce and industry for trade and transportation, technical supervision bureaus for processing, health bureaus for restaurants, etc. A quarantine and inspection bureau oversees food safety for exports and imports.

Consequently, the various regulatory authorities have blurred responsibilities and there is little oversight of the entire system. Food safety problems often arise when perpetrators find loopholes and spaces in the industry that no one is watching. Enforcement varies widely from place to place. Safety hazards abound in rural areas and back alleys of cities while import-export authorities adopt strict zero-tolerance standards inspired by Japanese and European counterparts. The zero tolerance standards may be strictly enforced one month and ignored in another month.

The Fudan University report is a positive step forward in viewing the underlying governance and incentive problems behind China's food safety problems. True to Confucian form, it emphasizes "coordination"--implying gigantic administrative structures with stronger sanctions and enforcement powers that give bureaucrats even greater concentration of authority. China's food safety law was intended to address these problems, but regulatory inertia is much stronger than most people realize. Redrawing an organizational chart doesn't change the people and their allegiances that undermined enforcement mechanisms in the first place.

The Fudan Center for Collaborative Monitoring of Health-Related Social Problems that issued the report also appears to be confucian in that participants apparently were scholars--mainly from medical universities--and officials. According to a description of the center's founding in March 2013, the center was sponsored by the Ministry of Education and various officials with health-related responsibilities to discuss and find innovative solutions to food safety and other public health problems, specifically citing SARS, avian influenza, melamine, and "haze." The center doesn't appear to have significant representation of agricultural, commerce, foreign trade spheres. Confucian officials have long viewed farmers as ignorant and merchants as crooks, but an effective system will have to ensure that farmers and merchants have incentives to provide safe food--even when no official is watching.

The Fudan health governance center also subtly reveals that the idea of a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" is still a distinctly foreign concept in the Orwellian Peoples Republic of China. Food safety regulation is motivated by a desire to strengthen the State. In explaining why it is important to address food safety problems, the description of the center's founding emphasizes the threat of social instability and damage to the government's credibility, "even shaking the ruling position." The chief concern of the report is that food safety incidents harm the international reputation of China's food industry. The interests of consumers are mentioned as a concern only because unhappy people might rise up against authorities.

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