Chinese Experts on Food Safety: Building Food Safety Governance in China

Building Food Safety Governance in China a PDF book downloadable free of charge by a group of Chinese scholars has just been published by the European Union.  The book is  is  available at

cover Food Safety Governance in China

“This book contains a comprehensive review and analysis of the current Chinese food safety regulatory framework. China is a country of paradoxes, relying on its age-old history on one hand, and able to quickly implement considerable changes on the other hand. I contributed to training courses on food safety organised in the context of the Shanghai 2010 Expo and could already feel there the resolute determination to progress of the Chinese authorities. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in food safety in China”.
– Eric Poudelet, former Director responsible for Food Safety in the European Commission
Directorate General for Health & Consumers.”

A book on a technical subject yes, though I found it an intriguing lens through which to look at decades of development of Chinese law, politics and economy.
Politics does rear its ugly head. Or perhaps this is just a matter of politics taking command.  Dealing with messy realities with the governance system of today and thinking about how it might be made to work a bit better.

How to implement food safety governance in China ask the Chinese scholars?      Social co-governance. Not banned yet apparently! I trust that the Party Center remains alert!
p. 22
” In addition, the emphasis put on social co-governance has also become an important feature of China’s response to food safety. The command-and-control type of regulation previously adopted translated into government’s intervention in the private market so as to protect public health and public interests. The advancement and evolution of regulatory reforms in various countries, however, shows that the continuous strengthening of government regulations might hinder the role of market mechanisms in resource allocation, and that the strict control of social organisations is not conducive to the development of social self-governance. On the other hand, as a continuous process of interaction and management, governance is characterised by the fact that public institutions and private institutions, besides governments, can also become important power centres at different levels thanks to the public’s recognition of their power exercises, thereby coordinating collective actions and sharing their interests and responsibilities. For this reason, social co-governance has been proposed in the area of food safety in the hope that all subjects from society can actively participate in food safety governance. The emphasis of social co-governance of food safety is also related to its very characteristics: in fact, food supply as well as food supervision and management involve multiple and diverse stakeholders such as producers, processors and retailers, as well as official supervision under the multisector model. In other words, the lack or perhaps overlapping of duties caused by division of labour creates a situation where everyone is responsible, but no one has responsibility. Frequently, food practitioners would shift the responsibility to others, and authorities would evade or abuse their responsibilities.

On this view, a whole-control process covering the entire from-farm-to-fork stage, and emphasising food safety as a shared responsibility, have been considered as important
principles for further enhancing food safety work. Accordingly, the aim of social co-governance is social sharing.11 If all social subjects in the food field can take up their social
responsibilities, they actually become responsible for themselves. For any producers and sellers that are involved in any segment of the entire industry chain, producing and selling safe food equals to responsibility for their own businesses. Only responsible enterprises can have a future with room to grow. If the government food supervision and management bodies can earnestly perform their own assigned functions, then they are fulfilling their own social responsibility, which equals to being in control of their credibility. If any consumer is able to truly monitor the safety level of the production and manufacturing of their daily food, then we can say they are truly responsible for their health and lives. More importantly, with regards to the approaches to shared responsibility and co-governance, China in its food safety-related laws has already established a system of responsibility from liability to accountability, including administrative and criminal punishment, and civil compensations. On this basis, institutional arrangements such as complaints, reports, risk communication, and media supervision also provide channels and benefits for all society subjects to participate in the governance of food safety. 



Re-inventing reputation:  media is controlled and government intervention is pervasive and credibility is low.  Apparently a reputation analogue needs to be invented.  A scientific one of course.
p. 40
“Credit reward and punishment mechanism: The modern society is a credit-based society.
In recent years, relevant authorities have cooperated closely to actively promote the
establishment of a credit system, and have achieved certain results, although still far from
giving full play to the credit system’s value. There is an urgent need to speed up the
establishment of a sound scientific credit evaluation mechanism for food enterprises, bringing all types of food enterprises into credit investigation, evaluation and disclosure network, through which the credit status of food companies can be disclosed comprehensively, objectively, and timely. This shall contribute to consumers when making purchase decisions; to relevant supervision and management authorities to implement categorised supervision and management; as well as to food enterprises to strengthen self-discipline management.” 

Decades of political and economic development in China as seen by Hu Yinglian, associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing,   through the lens of food safety. 
P 63
4.4.4. Inner logic of the evolution of the food safety system
Looking back at the evolution of China’s food safety until 2011, we realise that its concepts and evolution are in line with the institutional logic of the time. At the early stage of the reform and opening-up drive, the national economy was in a precarious state. In the new
era, the main contradiction in the food sector was ensuring the daily food subsistence of the people, with the main food hygiene problems in this period being associated with the “premarket”  risks of an underdeveloped economy. Encouraging industry administration authorities and local governments to assume an active role in expanding the food industry therefore became a reasonable choice for decision-makers. As a result, laws and regulations, the regulatory system as well as relevant policy measures featured a distinctive mix of features of both a planned and commodity economy. Starting from this moment, however, the development of China’s food industry was disordered, market order was disrupted, and institutional barriers emerged. Against the backdrop of the market economy guided by socialist principles, a second reform was destined to take place. 
The central government initiated a battle against local protectionism and departmental interests by enhancing overall external supervision, by institutionalising food hygiene management, and by putting forth a new concept of food safety that should meet the needs and requirements for the development of the industry chain. Although economic development was still the “biggest political priority”, food hygiene and safety in this period clearly gained more attention from policy-makers. The constantly improving market economic system together with China’s entry into the WTO accelerated the development of food industry. The extended food industry chain and the emergence of new risks required changes in the institutional design. The political leadership came to realise that the safeguarding of consumers’ public interests was far more important than the commercial interests of the food industry.

The adoption of a model of “comprehensive coordination and segmented regulation”, together with the clarification of the responsibilities of local governments, must therefore be seen as a useful attempt to achieve this goal. Facing frequent food safety incidents, the institutional structure underwent constant adjustments, and modern regulatory and management tools were introduced one after another. Such new regulatory concepts and practices were eventually defined and clarified in the Food Safety Law promulgated in 2009.
The establishment of the State Council’s Food Safety Committee Office further contributed to the achievement of food safety policy goals from a top-down institutional design. This evolution of China’s food safety (hygiene) system from 1979 to 2011 is summarised in Table
food safety progress chart

P. 106
“To solve the above-mentioned issues, on the one hand, the most important thing is to ramp up efforts to establish a fairer procedure and to thoroughly implement the principle of transparency. The establishment of such a fairer procedure means that social actors including
media, consumers, neutral third-party supervisory organisations (such as the Consumer Protection Association), and in particular directly-concerned stakeholders, must engage in relevant procedures when enterprises set up standards, establish hazard and quality control systems, and exercise whole-process self-regulation. Since self-regulation features the sharing of public rights, it is necessary to ensure procedural supervision over sharing process. 

On the other hand, the key to warding off the risk of government inaction lies in clarifying the relationship between self-regulation and government responsibilities. Selfregulation is still a kind of regulation in nature, rather than laissez-faire, so self-regulation does not equal to a complete retreat of the government or the abandonment of government duties; rather, it simply indicates a change from a direct, upfront government supervision to an indirect, backstage one – “the supervision over the supervisors”. The government should employ measures such as record-filing (备案 bei’an), enquiries, spot checking, notifications and interviews on a regular basis to check the enterprises’ self-built standards, operational environments, and self-regulatory obligations. In the meantime, the government should also remind enterprises of the risks involved in their self-regulation in a proper and timely manner.

According to the traditional “subsidiarity principle” of the civil law systems, when the social mechanism of self-regulation misfunctions, the government must play the role of being the final thread that holds things together; in other words, the government should curb the regulatory risks and negative consequences which have already taken place.



Dealing with people who game the system: 
p. 115 
“In addition, anti-counterfeiting actions taken after the publishing of a product recall notice by a producer or distributor could also hinder the latter from recalling defective products in a timely manner, thus ultimately damaging the interests of consumers. In other cases, activities such as deliberately creating defective products and then consciously purchase them (a typical behaviour relates to hiding food products in places difficult to be seen by shelf stockers, and then buying them after their expiration) pushed many supermarkets into resorting to preventative business activities such as installing monitoring system, increasing the cost of shelf stocking, and stamping “the products have not expired” on the receipts, all of which unnecessarily increased the costs of operations, which would then reflect in higher prices for consumers.

In more extreme cases, the “professional anti-counterfeiters” would ask for large compensations from the producers and distributors in addition to the punitive damages stipulated in the law, by way of claiming to report to law enforcement authorities or disclosing information to media. As rational business actors, producers and distributors would usually evaluate and compare the consequences of directly facing legal penalties, and then decide the appropriateness of reporting such extortions to public security authorities and accept the consequences imposed by law. But there have also been cases in which insufficiently informed producers and distributors would overestimate the severity of legal penalties and pay sums of “ransom money” far exceeding the legal amount of the compensation.



Progress in food safety yes but still many difficulties remain.
P. 132 “Standardisation stage (2015 – present)

During this stage, food safety governance was incorporated into the national governance system and was elevated to the position of national strategy; 81 the entire society’s understanding of food safety reached a high level as it integrated social, economic, livelihood
and political issues.82 Officials believe that since the 1978 economic reforms, it took over 30 years for China to go through a food supervision and management process which, in comparison, took the United States more than a hundred years to complete. However, the food safety situation remains grim. It is at a special stage where several issues co-exist, including food adulteration, technical risks, the menace of sudden incidents and new risks brought about by technological changes. 

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated,with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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