Cleaning up China’s food safety system

Polluted soil and water is China’s biggest challenge, says food safety pioneer Liu Xiumei, in the country’s campaign to move on from its well-publicized scandals.

Liu Xiumei
Liu Xiumei

Food is a source of great joy in China. Massive dinners with roast duck, juicy pork and vibrant vegetable dishes, extravagantly prepared fish, endless bowls of spicy noodles and steaming pots of rice are essential to large family gatherings, social occasions and for successfully sealing business deals. Everyday meals are slightly less tempered though no less central to family life.

Yet there is also a bit of cynicism as consumers approach their rice bowls and steamed buns after year upon year of various food scandals. For example, the powdered milk industry is still recovering from the 2008 melamine scandal, when processors tried to artificially boost protein content in powdered milk and baby formula by lacing products with the chemical additive melamine, leading to thousands falling ill and the deaths of several babies. Other scandals have included fake and adulterated meat and the illegal recycling of “gutter” oil. In addition, soil and irrigation water contaminated with heavy metals and pesticide residue have caused scares over cadmium in rice, chemical-saturated bean sprouts and countless other concerns over fruit and produce.

We need to put public health first and then the health of the food industry. Right now it is the opposite.”
—Liu Xiumei

For China, according to Liu Xiumei, a scientific advisor at the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment, the task ahead is daunting and could still take some time.

She recalls the first International Food Safety Forum held by China with the cooperation of the International Union of Food Science and Technology, back in 2010, where she was having a discussion with Patrick Wall, former chair of the European Food Safety Authority: “He was excited about [the progress of] food safety in China and said he thought it would reach the level of industrial countries in 20 years or less,” she said during an interview at her office in Beijing in early February 2015. “I said, no, food safety is an issue for the public, not only for industry and the scientists.

“In my view, I think China needs at least 50 years to catch up to the level of developed countries,” she says, primarily because of the long timelines involved in alleviating pollution.

A food safety pioneer for China

Liu, who also serves as primary chief scientist on food safety for the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), was one of the earliest food safety experts in China and has seen the progress the country has made in setting standards during the past 25 years. After graduating with a medical degree from Shanghai Medical University, she worked in the microbiology field and in 1986 became the first visiting scholar from China to go to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration through a program put on by the World Bank. There, Liu studied how the FDA managed foodborne illness and disease transmission.

Over the next 10 years she became involved in China’s submissions to the international CODEX system, a set of voluntary standards for food safety that are submitted by members from different countries. She also attended a joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) meeting as the first person from China to join an expert committee: the Expert Committee on Risk Assessment of Microhazards in Food. And in 2000, Liu helped set up China’s first foodborne illness surveillance network, an evolving project managed by the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA).

To address food safety, China needs to look at the whole society, says Liu, who now works primarily on China’s involvement in the CODEX system. That means not only building up a national system to guarantee food safety, developing a risk management capability, and further increasing the level of expertise and a system for tracing foodborne illness to the source, but also educating consumers and changing perceptions created in the media about the relative safety and dangers of different food sources.

Liu thinks it will take less time for industry to make inroads on ensuring food safety and quality—in fact, she believes the milk and meat industries, due to the scandals they have faced recently, are the “best they’ve ever been”—and the system of laws and regulations is being put into place. But pollution issues at the source, particularly contaminated soil and water, will be a major factor in why it will take so long to meet the food safety levels of developed countries, she says.

Three actions need to be taken in China, according to Liu, to get to that point:

* Addressing the entire food supply chain and how it is monitored from the very beginning.

* Increasing the level of awareness about hygiene in the general population and educating the next generation of specialists in food safety, epidemiology and environmental health.

* Perfecting a national food safety monitoring system, since there are currently many gaps in the process.

“Not many people [here] are concerned with public health,” she says. “In the U.S., there is a system for monitoring foodborne illnesses. When something happens, they can quickly detect and trace and find how many states [the product] has been distributed to. But we haven’t really established that very well yet. This is a very challenging area in China. We are just starting now.”

Prioritizing public health

Also paramount is raising public awareness about food as more than just something to either enjoy or be afraid of, says Liu.

“Education on food safety and hygiene is weak,” she says. “The system for [handling foodborne illness incidents] is weak. The transparency, when something happens, that is also weak.

“The objective of food safety is to control foodborne illnesses,” she adds. “But the government has a big challenge, when the media publishes something or when consumers complain. The leaders try to solve the problem, so the government agencies have to follow the media to solve some issues [and get rid of the bad publicity], but that’s just a surface solution and not a solution that gets to the source of the problem.”

Draft amendments to the country’s Food Safety Law are currently in the works that could help codify responsibilities, but consensus on how the law should be amended has not yet been reached, Liu says. Different stages of development—from prosperous and modern eastern coastal provinces like Guangdong or Jiangsu, to western and inland areas such as Gansu, Guizhou or Qinghai provinces—have also created problems in fully establishing a system of monitoring and enforcing food safety standards across the board.

“We need to put public health first and then the health of the food industry. Right now it is the opposite,” Liu says. “They try to find the factory [that produced a contaminated product] and take care of the problem, but that is only stopping one factory or one type of food product.”

Michael Standaert

Based in Shenzhen, China, Michael Standaert is a freelance writer who serves as a special correspondent for Bloomberg BNA, covering legal and regulatory news on issues including the environment. He has also contributed to the MIT Technology Review, Global Post and other media.

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