Domestic Affairs

The recipe of China's food safety crisis

By Huang Shuo (
Updated: 2011-05-09 15:39
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Tainted melamine milk powder, salted duck eggs containing cancer-causing dyes, artificial honey, fake wine, donkey-hide gelatin, waste oil, sulfur steamed ginseng, plaster tofu, dyed bread…the list goes on.

Sadly, many people estimate that the list will get longer. Every day we worry about the next food time bomb exploding, we just do not know where the site of the blast will be.

In the past, my impression of Chinese enterprises was in copyright fraud, counterfeit brands, later spreading to other areas like toxic toys. The food industry now faces its own serious problem.

Food fraud, like other fraud, plays a harmful role, because it directly threatens the health and safety of consumers. Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Qishan attended the two sessions (the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) in 2011, stating that he felt shameful there have been food safety issues.

So the tragedy continues to unfold. The public is so angry with denunciation and condemnation, but can do little to stop the recklessness of the fraudsters.

Behind the crisis, I believe, hides a lack of rule of law and a crisis of faith.

From an economic point of view, food counterfeiters have individual rationalization, if the illegal gains exceed the costs, it will be worth it. Law depends on cost and the probability of investigation and punishment (including fines and criminal penalties). It should be said that there are enough laws, rules and regulations on food safety, and the key is the implementation.

In law enforcement, two points are worth noting:

First, because of low salaries of law enforcement officers, offering bribes is relatively easy. As a result, law enforcement officers in the chain have become corrupt. With the protection of law enforcement officials, counterfeiters will be more reckless. When the industry becomes open to "hidden rules," the role of law enforcement officers becomes numb or powerless.

Secondly the issue of symbolic punishment needs addressing Food Safety Law stipulates that compensation should be offered up to a maximum of ten times the value of the food. This will have little effect on profit-driven businesses.

Only when citizens can get huge compensation through legal action will the food safety system really affect the behavior of enterprises.

Every day there seems to be another scandal. The department responsible for quality inspection is either in serious dereliction of their duty and should be severely punished, or has colluded with the counterfeiters allowing this fraud to exist for a long time.

Improving law enforcement effectiveness on food safety must be a multi-pronged approach: First, regulators must dare to expose the ugly. Second, the offender must not be tolerated, not just by punishing the individual offender, to avoid selective enforcement. The media should be given more freedom to act in timely and effective manner monitoring fraud. Finally, law enforcement must crack down on collusion.

As food safety affects the interests of each person, and may even threaten social stability, it should arouse the attention of the government. The problem that exists for ordinary people is simply: what can we safely eat today?

The author can be reached at


From the readers: Time to get tough on food fraud