Saturday, November 4, 2017

China Wants to Certify Food Safety in Global Market

Despite its abysmal reputation in food safety, China now thinks it deserves a stronger say in certifying the safety of food in international trade.

In an October 10 article in Economic Information Daily, the chief of Zhejiang Province's Ningbo district inspection and quarantine bureau complained that Chinese food exporters face an "invisible wall" of multiple certifications required to sell products in overseas markets. These include process certifications like HACCP and ISO9001, organic standards, halal and kosher certifications, and social responsibility certifications. He complained that certifications are monopolized by foreign organizations who charge high fees, often fail to obey rules, and impose a heavy burden on Chinese food-exporting companies.

Another complaint is that certifications are not mutually recognized, leading to duplication in certifications for different markets. Countries don't trust each others' certifications (i.e. other countries don't trust Chinese certifications).

The article suggested that China need not passively accept the dominance of foreign certifiers. The article called for creating "native" certification brands that will have international influence and strengthen China's voice in the international certification market. A Zhejiang University professor quoted in the article predicted that China will soon develop influential certification companies that will be on an equal footing with foreign certification organizations and give China a voice in certification. He suggested giving awards to successful certifiers. The article called for leveraging the "One Belt One Road" campaign, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and trade agreements to boost the position of Chinese companies in quality certification and testing.

While the article appears to be the opinion of a local official, it probably signals a new campaign to boost China's influence in the setting and enforcement of international standards for food safety. The communist party leadership's "document no. 1" on rural policy issued in January included exhortations for China to "actively participate in the setting and revision of international trade rules and international standards" and to work toward achieving "mutually recognized certifications for agricultural products." The no. 1 document also called for expanding exports of agricultural products--language that has appeared in most of the rural policy documents since 1984.

This new initiative is consistent with China's general pursuit of a more assertive and influential role in international affairs to break the perceived dominance of Anglophone and European countries. Recent Chinese documents on strategy for "international cooperation" in agriculture set similar objectives of playing a more influential role in international bodies like the WTO, Codex Alimentarius, and the international animal disease organization that set the rules for international trade.

China is already insisting that international standards must be adapted to its unusual consumption habits and other peculiarities--see this year's revision of Chinese standards for infant formula. Unique Chinese standards will, of course, demand Chinese organizations will be necessary to certify foods for import to China. Once that is accomplished it's a short step to insist that Chinese certifiers and labs be accredited for oversight of Chinese exporters in China and in other countries where they are investing.

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