Mid-Term Report of the Food Safety Project Under the Beijing Technology Innovation Action Plan (2014-2017)

China’s food safety woes are well known: Exposés have become all too common, especially after the 2008 scandal over melamine-tainted milk. From gutter oil to fake eggs to contaminated strawberries, the long list of food safety incidents in China means that domestic consumers are understandably worried about the food they can buy and eat. China’s revised Food Safety Law, enacted in October 2015, is intended to strengthen the regulation of food companies in China and enhance oversight along the supply chain. As in other issue areas, however, the challenge is not in setting regulations but in implementing them.

According to the statistics from China Food and Drug Administration, there are currently over 400,000 food-processing enterprises in China, 90 per cent of which are medium- and small-sized, even including small workshops. This poses great challenges for the government in enforcing the food safety regulatory procedures. Food safety in Beijing, the capital city of China, is also limited by flaws in the links of food production, logistics, monitoring and detection.

The extremely fragmented nature of Beijing’s food supply chain presents unique challenges when it comes to food safety surveillance and enforcement. Beijing itself is food import-dependent, thereby requiring additional monitoring capability for compliance purposes. According to Beijing Food and Drug Administration statistics, Beijing's “food self-sufficiency rate” is less than 20 per cent, which translates to Beijing’s high dependence on food sourced outside the capital. This local food deficit poses, in the eyes of Beijing officials, serious security issues.

Given the perceived security and supply issues, there is a recognised acute need for introducing new food safety tracing and verification technologies. At the same time, the local regulatory system is far from seamless. There is a regulatory maze for food safety enforcement in Beijing. The Beijing Trade and Industry Bureau, the Tax Bureau and Bureau of Quality Supervision share enforcement responsibilities depending on the sector and the targeted enterprises. In addition, there is no mature exchange and sharing mechanism of information, so information resources are sealed in different databases, which causes a serious waste of information resources.

Food Safety Project

The Food Safety Project, listed as the fourth project under the framework of the Technology Innovation Action Plan, has a four-year (CY 2014-’17) operating mandate. A chief focus has been on the introduction of new food safety technologies to achieve a more consistent, reliable level of compliance.

The Beijing Municipal Government held a press conference on the Food Safety Project in July 2016, highlighting technology applications introduced in the links of food production, food processing, food logistics and food safety detection. It released the following main findings:

For food production, a series of bio-technological products have been introduced to replace the traditional chemical fertilizers that would damage human health. According to a government official, “22 types of bio-pesticides, bio-fertilizers, biological veterinary drugs, and biological vaccines have been developed, which have helped reduce the use of chemical fertilizers by 30%.”

For food processing, research has been conducted to improve the existing database, and the manufacturing technologies have been adopted to extend the food shelf life. For example, in support of the Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission, Beijing Sanyuan Foods (a national dairy enterprise) implemented China’s first comprehensive research of infant milk powder formula focused on maternal and child nutrition, and established a database with statistics of components of breast milk and infant gut microbial fingerprints. Furthermore, a modernised processing technology center named China Meat Research Center has been established, and has made great progress in meat production. For example, it developed the Bacillus induction and antibacterial-targeting (i.e., temperature sterilization) technologies and equipment system, which help extend shelf life to 130 days at 25°C while maintaining high product quality.

For food logistics, more than 30 sophisticated technology applications that integrate prevention and control, logistics monitoring, and product traceability have been applied. Moreover, a unified tracking-surveillance system has been established among the main food suppliers in Beijing, including 100 large-scale supermarkets and 200 large communities.

For food safety detection, the Beijing Food Safety Monitoring and Risk Assessment Center has established the Screening and Identifying Technology Platform to identify toxic substances and illegal additives in food production. The platform contains three prominent technology innovations - generic fast pre-treatment technology, non-target identification technology and high-risk food compound library screening that covers approximately 3,000 species. This significantly increases the speed of identifying the poisoning substances in food production. Also, according to Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission, Beijing has improved 42 types of existing high-sensitivity detection reagents and analytical methods, and developed 15 types of new rapid detection equipment.

Despite its accomplishments of technology innovations, the Beijing Municipal Government still has many tasks to fulfill in the second-half term of the Food Safety Project. The newly innovated technologies are yet to be put into full practice, and their long-term outcomes remain uncertain due to the changing food industry and the relevant laws and regulations.

Moreover, a regional collaboration platform is being established between Beijing and its adjunct regions (Tianjin City and Hebei Province), which will integrate information across sectors and regions. The platform addresses problems of food information asymmetry and resource inefficiency among different regions; in this way, it could potentially serve as a model for other regions in China.

Xuefei Zhao, Research Associate with the GIC Group, is a graduate of Ren Min University (RUC) in China, and is currently a master’s student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in the U.S. Previously, she worked at the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT) and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) in Peru.