Executive Summary: Recently, China has come under fire for its food safety standards by both export recipients and domestic consumers. Several of China’s largest trading partners have imposed punitive bans on Chinese food products, citing quality assurance concerns. Shortcomings in food safety have also precipitated instances of domestic social unrest. Reassessing the current food safety apparatus in China is necessary to determine the most effective response to deal with this issue.
Problem Statement: Food safety concerns have negatively impacted China in three main ways. First, publicized recalls and import bans on Chinese products have damaged the credibility of the Chinese brand. Secondly, several large trading partners have imposed bans and import restrictions on food products, undermining China’s export market penetration and impeding its long term economic growth. Thirdly, food safety concerns exacerbate domestic apprehensions regarding victuals safeguards, leading to instances of social instability. Policy Options: To address the need for improved safety regulations, three policy paths should be examined:
1. Essential Status Quo: In this scenario, China would implement minor bureaucratic and regulatory reforms. On the national level, oversight and food safety inspections would be consolidated slightly from six to four. Overhaul efforts would include a funding increase, deemed ‘significant’, for more food inspectors at the local level. The new regulatory regime would put the onus of day to day responsibility onto local jurisdictions with a Federal oversight role.
2. Moderate Reform Model: In this scenario, China would implement bureaucratic consolidation of its six major food safety regulators into two. In this new model, one agency would oversee food safety for exportation and the other agency would oversee domestic food safety. These two regulating and compliance bodies would report to the newly created Minister of Food Safety.
- (a) A consolidated civilian command-and-control apparatus would mandate quality guidelines, increase frequency of unannounced inspections, and have authority to shutdown an operation or prosecute violators. Prosecutions would be conducted in civilian courts and victims could sue for punitive damages.
- (b) To encourage higher food safety standards, a certificate program would be implemented. The program would certify a firm’s quality assurance program.
3. Securitize – Food Security, is State Security: In this scenario, China would implement wide sweeping changes focused on securing the Chinese food supply. A consolidated, unified singular regulatory body would be created and run by a former Chinese General with logistics expertise. The head of the new regulatory body would report directly to the Ministry of Defense.
- (a) A mandatory registration process would be implemented requiring all contributors to the food supply chain be subject to inspection and quality standards.
- (b) Violators would be prosecuted in criminal courts. Draconian sentencing guidelines including capital punishment would go into effect. Senior managers would be subject to prosecution including sentences to hard labor reeducation camps.
- (c) A confidential tips hotline with a monetary award would be created to elicit greater input from citizens and workers.
Critique of Policy Options: In order to analyze the policy options, a clear criterion for evaluation is necessary. The policy options must meet four basic elements including short term impact on improving food safety, enhancing Chinese brand image, supporting export market expansion and continued economic growth, and alleviating domestic apprehensions surrounding food safety.
(1) In the first policy option, maintain the status quo, the emphasis is on minor modifications including a bureaucratic reshuffle. This is the easiest and least resource consuming choice. However, this policy will fail to improve food safety. This approach would also appear as window dressing by trading partners. Also, this policy would likely lack credibility for citizens still impacted by food safety concerns. As a result, the status quo policy option fails to qualify as an effective option.
(2) In the second policy option, moderate reform model, the consolidation of regulatory oversight, the creation of a Ministry of Food Security, and the enhanced authorities’ is a stronger path to ensuring food safety effectively. Such a policy program would send a strong message to trading partners and domestic constituencies that China was serious. The certification program would stimulate renewed interest in food safety efforts. However, this approach would be time intensive to create a truly viable food safety mechanism. Any delay could have serious repercussions. Additionally, food production is not a siloed process and the two regulatory bodies would likely find themselves fighting over jurisdiction if a plant produces food products for both the domestic and export market. As such, it falls short of being the most effective choice to improve food safety.
(3) In the third policy option, securitize food safety, a major reshuffling of regulatory oversight and the creation of a food safety department reporting to the Ministry of Defense would indicate the issue’s level of importance. It would serve to bolster China’s brand image because of the severity of Chinese actions. It would send a strong message to trading partners that food safety for the export market was a priority. Elevating the matter to a state security level would alleviate fears about the government’s inability to ensure food safety. Lastly, consolidating responsibility would reduce bureaucracy and ensure stakeholders were held to account.
Recommendations: China supplies nearly 20 percent of the world’s population with food (Ref: 1a). Additionally, China exports food products to more than 200 nations around the world and 99 percent of those exports comply with the required safety standards of export nations (Ref: 1b). While the quality of Chinese food exports is high, even a one percent failure rate has serious implications for China’s food industry. As a consequence, any breakdown in the food safety supply chain can have a wide reaching and profound impact on those China feeds both domestically and abroad.
The third option is the most radical in form and nature. However, it satisfies all four criteria for effectiveness. In addition pursuing such a policy course by pulling security resources into the issue would propel the reform measures along. In turn, implementation of this policy could be achieved expeditiously. As such, China should move forward and securitize food safety.
1a) China’s Government’s Official Web Portal, “Hu: Food Issue Concerns World’s Development, Security”, Wednesday, July 9, 2008, Assessed on October 20, 2008, http://english.gov.cn/2008-07/09/content_1040376.htm
1b) Embassy of the Republic of China in the United States of America, “China-US Relations: Chinese Food Exports Are Safe”, June 26, 2007, Assessed on October 20, 2008, http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zmgx/t334047.htm
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8) Embassy of the Republic of China in the United States of America, “China-US Relations: Chinese Food Exports Are Safe”, June 26, 2007, Accessed on October 20, 2008, http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zmgx/t334047.htm
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