A new spate of food safety scares has hit China this spring, from tales of exploding watermelons (caused by application of a dodgy growth accelerator) to cadmium in rice to pork tainted by a dangerous feed additive.
This sudden rush of bad news is not happening because food has become less safe (it has been unsafe for a while now!) but because of a change in government policy toward press reporting on this sensitive issue, according to the Associated Press:
Zhang Yong, the director of the executive office of the new Cabinet-level Food Safety Commission, recently praised the media's "important watchdog role" after being asked why journalists have frequently able to find food safety problems before inspectors.
Until recently, reporting on tainted or fake food was a risky move for the media, so Director Zhang is playing a new tune here, but if the government’s hope is that bad press alone will shame food companies into more responsible behavior, as is being reported, it’s a terrible miscalculation and an unfortunate abdication of regulatory responsibility.
It's unlikely that media scrutiny and public opinion will compensate for the deficiencies of state regulatory power in China, where libel laws are notoriously pro-plaintiff, and companies frequently bring suit and win on the grounds that their profits have suffered due to statements made in the press or on the internet. They don’t even need to file suit themselves. Instead, they can go to sympathetic local officials, who often use criminal libel laws to silence anyone critical of either government behavior or of companies deemed vital for local employment or tax revenue.
It is certainly true that a century ago, muckraking played an important role in improving food safety in the U.S., but public shaming alone seldom changes corporate behavior. In most countries, press exposés of corporate abuses have brought reforms by fuelling public outrage, which was converted into political action by social movements that pressured government to reign in corporations. (Can you spot the missing link in that causal chain in China?)
What’s needed is not a change of heart by embarrassed “bad actors,” but a transformation of the food system, which is currently built around making money above all else. Food is treated as just one more manufactured good, and in the search for market share and profits, companies will do virtually anything to lower costs and move product; a weak press and a weaker civil society can't fix that. If China’s leaders decide that they want a food system based instead on ensuring a supply of safe, healthy food for the Chinese people, the quest for profit will need to take a back seat to the rights of more empowered consumers, press and regulators, and a well-regulated market will work better for all but the most unscrupulous players, since consumers with a higher level of trust in the system will be less skeptical of all products.
If regulation of the food system in China operates like policing other parts of the economy and society, we can expect that the current spate of food safety horror stories will lead to a “strike hard” campaign. There will be video footage of courageous police and perp walks, and then, within a few months, the status quo ante will return.