Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Why the Vegetable Testing Lab is Locked

Chinese officials pretend that acquiring hardware--laboratories and fancy equipment--assures food safety, but it doesn't. The equipment is worthless without skilled technicians to operate it. The long-entrenched Chinese strategy is to hold splashy opening ceremonies to impress visitors followed by neglect after the visitors have gone home.

A reporter from a Nanjing newspaper visited the city's biggest vegetable-supply area to check on the system for ensuring that vegetables have no toxic pesticide residues. Local farmers pointed out a building which bore a sign that identified it as the "Nanjing City vegetable base testing lab" sponsored by the Nanjing municipal agricultural commission.

The building was locked up and passersby told the reporter that no one had been to the building for a long time. The reporter peeked in the windows and saw a few pieces of equipment that appeared to be unused.

Demonstrating testing for visiting officials at a vegetable company's lab near Nanjing.

This testing lab is part of a "hazard-free" agricultural product certification system set up by the Ministry of Agriculture about ten years ago to ensure that vegetables and other products supplied domestically are free of toxic pesticide residues. Branches of an "Agricultural Quality and Safety Center" certify swathes of farmland called a "production base" as being free of pollution and using acceptable practices. Testing is supposed to ensure that vegetables are free of toxic residues. This base near Nanjing covers 1000 mu (about 400 acres) and probably includes multiple villages.

Local farmers told the reporter that the laboratory building is just for show and is never occupied. They claimed that they would like to test the vegetables and fruits they grow but the building remains locked up.

A community official told the reporter that the lab technician is currently assigned elsewhere because not many vegetables are being produced. He said a technician is there when vegetables are harvested, but local farmers said no technician ever appears. 

The reporter then went to the district's agricultural service center where another official told him there aren't enough technicians to staff the lab at the production site. All the staff are at the central testing lab, he said.

The reporter went to the district service center to investigate the testing there. He took a farmer with him. When he arrived at 10 am, he found the door to this building was also locked and no one responded when he knocked. He went around to the back of the building and found an employee. This person explained that the center is closed because the staff are cleaning up in preparation for a visit by higher-level officials.

One technician claimed that testing continued normally even though the doors were locked. The center had records showing that all vegetables tested were within tolerances for residues each day. To prove they were doing testing, he showed the reporter boxes of cabbage and greens that had just been delivered for testing. The farmer accompanying the reporter laughed at this response, saying, "Everyone knows that cabbage is not harvested in Nanjing during this season--anyone trying to pass off this as local cabbage is ignorant about farming." They concluded that the vegetables they were testing must have been brought in from some other place.

The reporter pressed the technician on whether there is any way to verify that vegetables brought to the center are from the local area. He could not provide a clear answer.

This vignette suggests some fundamental problems with China's food safety system:
  1. Infrastructure may be only furniture for show. 
  2. Buildings are only open and cleaned up when higher-level officials come to visit. 
  3. The food safety system is operated for the benefit of officials, not for consumers.
  4. There aren't enough skilled technicians to operate the equipment.
  5. Many employees of agricultural supervision organizations may not actually know much about agriculture.
  6. There is no way to verify the source of samples that are tested.
"Hazard free" vegetable certifications

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