China Meat Scandal - Symptom of a Broader Regional Issue

China’s latest food safety scandal, the discovery of rotten meat bound for consumers during a crack-down on meat smuggling rings, highlights the need for stronger regional collaboration alongside tougher regulations to tackle Asia’s food safety issues.

In this article we look at how the issue has played out in the media so far and the food safety challenges it presents for the region as China introduces tougher food safety laws this year.

The story so far

Last week Chinese and international media reported that more than 100,000 tonnes of frozen meat posing serious health risks, valued at 3 billion yuan (USD 483 million), was seized by Chinese customs authorities in June. Local news agency Xinhua reported that more than 21 smuggling groups based across 14 provinces were detained in the operation, and that some of the apprehended meat was rotting and found to be more than 40 years old.

The Changsha Administration of Customs, which seized 800 tonnes of meat products worth 10 million yuan in Hunan alone, was quoted in China Daily as saying that “high profits have already spurred the creation of an extended supply chain” – with smugglers purchasing meat for very low prices from other countries such as India and Vietnam, and entering the country via border areas. A senior customs official told China Daily that to save costs smugglers often hired ordinary vehicles instead of refrigerated ones. So the meat was often thawed out several times before reaching customers.

China’s food safety challenge

“The widespread nature of this case highlights the importance of China’s tougher food safety laws being supported by stronger Asia-wide collaboration to truly stamp out food safety issues in the face of the increasingly lucrative black-market trade of food,” says Matt Kovac, Policy Director for Food Industry Asia (FIA).

China’s new food safety laws, which take effect from October 2015, include centralising supervision of food production and trading activities under the China Food & Drug Administration (CFDA), greater focus on risk prevention, stricter food ingredient and processing regulations, and tougher penalties for violations.

As part of these changes, further responsibility will be placed on food producers and traders to ensure compliance, which China food safety law expert Mr Paul O’Brien of Chemlinked REACH24h China says needs to happen.

Mr O’Brien said, “It’s unfortunate but under the current regulatory system, food safety scandals in China are a case of “when” rather than “if”.

“China’s demand for imported foods and the growth in international food trade has meant that its supervisory capacities are being overtaxed and regulatory authorities are being tested beyond their abilities. With the financial stakes set high, the cracks in China’s food supervisory system offer a mouth-watering opportunity for all types of food criminals looking to exploit demand.

He also highlighted, “This latest food safety issue demonstrates that raising the bar on food safety in Asia is a cultural issue as well as an enforcement issue, so accountability needs to be built into every step of the supply chain from import through to food service.

“This meat was clearly being smuggled to fill a market demand, and given the difficulty in many cases for consumers in telling good product from bad (particularly in the case of frozen products) these cultural issues need to be addressed to restore the public’s faith in their food supply.

“China’s new food safety laws reflect this, and shows how serious this issue is being taking at the highest levels in the country, and needs to be taken across the Asia region,” he concluded.

The importance of an Asia-wide multi-sector approach

This sentiment was also echoed at this month’s 2015 International Food Safety forum in Beijing where the importance of forming a multi-sector approach was recognised with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and China Food & Drug Administration (CFDA) signing a MoU to enhance their cooperation in the field of food safety through Public Private Partnership.

In his opening speech to CFDA where the signing was announced, Mr Li Yong, Director General of UNIDO, said “With food supply chains stretching around the world, the need to strengthen food safety systems within and among countries is becoming more critical.

He continued, “We recognise that the challenge of food safety is one of such magnitude, and is so multi-dimensional that it requires a multi-player response including governments, the business sector, international organisations, and civil society.”

Given food safety is one of FIA’s priorities, the organisation has been invited by the World Bank and other UN bodies to support food safety capacity-building efforts in Asia through the Global Food Safety Partnership.

While capacity building in country is important, in response to this latest meat scandal local experts in China are also calling for enhanced controls in border regions to prevent unsafe food products from entering China.

Matt Kovac said addressing food standards on regional imports and exports also comes back to taking a region-wide view, “FIA advocates for raising the industry’s standards across the region in key focus areas health & nutrition, regional development, and food safety, which in the case of food safety drives a preventative approach to the problem.

He concluded, “This latest issue in China highlights the considerable work that remains to be done in the area of food safety not just in China but across the Asia region, and how increased regional collaboration and regulatory harmonisation is vital for every country in Asia to drive a societal change around food safety.”

To read more on the work of Food Industry Asia in regional food safety, click here.

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