Confusion over Implementation of New Food Safety Law at Provincial Level in China

It has been almost a year since the implementation of China’s new Food Safety Law. The law is said to be the “strictest law” in history, aimed at improving China’s food safety problems and restoring public confidence in local food producers and suppliers.

While China has made very impressive advances in food safety regulations, it continues to be criticised for the lack of uniformity in implementing laws at the provincial level. To be more specific, because there is no uniform and connected tracing system for food in the marketplace and no way to share food safety information across provinces, local governments have a variety of standards for food quality despite adhering to the same central food safety law. Such irregular standards prevent local authorities from enforcing the new Food Safety Law.

Firstly, provinces in China usually use separate tracing systems to detect food quality and regulate accordingly. It is mentioned in article 50 of the new Food Safety Law that “food producers and traders should build the food security tracing system according to the law to make sure the food is traceable. It is encouraged that food producers and traders would adopt means of informational gathering, and retain production and trade information to establish the food security tracing system.”

While China has been actively encouraging the establishment of a food security tracing system, there is no uniform tracing system for all provinces as yet. Zuqiang Yan, director of the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration, says that Shanghai is building a food security tracing system, and almost one third of Shanghai companies have uploaded their tracing information to that platform. Moreover, on June 16, 2016, the province of Hubei announced its Management of the Food Security Tracing System, suggesting that a tracing system is necessary in order to strengthen food security management.

Although many provinces had issued regulations or notices that pointed out the importance of building a complete and uniform tracing system, there are still 16 provinces that have not established their own tracing systems. It has been suggested by the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) that even though many institutional reforms and integrations are already in place, 50 per cent of the inspection agencies in CFDA have not received training certification. With such uneven development of tracing systems in the provinces, information sharing and connection of standards cannot be achieved.

Secondly, there are no standardised regional regulations that can guarantee that each province and city effectively applies the new Food Safety Law. For example, on May 18, 2016, the press reported that the Qian’an city’s Market Supervisory Authority (MSA) had blocked products from China’s WH Group, China’s biggest meat company, from entering the city’s meat market. It is claimed by WH Group that the MSA misinterpreted Chinese law and contravened national anti-monopoly laws; the national CFDA, rather than the MSA, has the primary responsibility to close access to meat supplies in local markets. WH Group raised the question of discriminatory application of the food safety regulation to favour local companies over companies with a national scope.

There are various instances of applying diverse standards to food safety issues at provincial levels. Shandong Province, for instance, requires that all imported foods have sanitary certificates, certificates of origin, and qualified Chinese labels and instructions according to the new Food Safety Law. In addition, a series of more detailed regulations is also in place in Shandong province. For example, the content of Chinese labels should be no less than the content of foreign labels on the original packages, the size of Chinese characters should be no smaller than that of foreign characters, and the goods should be labelled before they are imported into China. However, in Xizang, another province in China, looser requirements are applied relative to Shandong province. There is no strict rule restricting the size and content of labels. The unsynchronized inspection system throughout China at provincial levels can cause much trouble for each province and consumer.

Thirdly, the enforcement of the new Food Safety Law in each province can be irregular due to the different provincial economic and agricultural laws. In other words, every province might not execute the instruction from a central level effectively, due to constraints from other laws. For example, it is stated in the new Food Safety Law that if producers don’t have their license and production permit or their products exceed the allowable shelf life, the producer will have to pay at least 50,000 Yuan in fines. After the introduction of the new Food Safety Law at a central level, only five provinces – Jiangsu, Guangdong, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, and Shanxi – carried out the regulations at the provincial level appropriately. The reason for such a weak response to the law in many provinces, like Sichuan, is that they usually have the local SME protection laws.

The SME protection laws can include providing subsidies, providing credit for loans, and giving technical support to start-ups and small businesses. As SMEs are the majority of businesses in those provinces and are heavily reliant on by the government for their tax and employment issues, it is a tough decision for a provincial government to maintain a balance between the conflicting interests.
Furthermore, some SMEs have less than 50,000 Yuan of property in total, which means they would be bankrupt after paying the fine. This makes it still harder for provinces to carry out effective enforcement.

According to the different situations in each province, there will be diverse obstacles to enforcing the law, which leads to a lack of uniformity of regulation and enforcement at a provincial level. And it is the lack of conformity in enforcement of the new Food Safety Law that could delay and even impede reform of China’s food safety issues.

Therefore, as Professor Zhu Yi, from the College of Food Science and Nutritional Engineering at China Agriculture University, said, “There are problems during the process of implementation; for instance, the lack of a supporting system in provincial levels. The new Food Safety law is a preliminary framework. If there is no specified rule, it is difficult to operate and control the enforcement process.” In other words, without uniform implementation of laws at the provincial level, it will be hard to improve the current food safety situation in China.

The GIC Group is an international agribusiness company with partner offices in Beijing, China, and São Paulo, Brazil. GIC founded and manages the Global Food Safety Forum, an industry non-profit organisation that aims to advance food safety through the harmonisation of standards, international compliance, certification and risk minimisation operations at the plant level.

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