By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal, China Real Time Report
Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao,” (Stanford University Press, 1999).
Sino-American cooperation to increase product safety is increasing, but this does not relieve concern about the safety of food and other Chinese exports to the U.S. China’s enforcement of its own laws remains inconsistent, local governments often try to hide information about defective products, and whistleblowers risk punishment. Moreover, as China’s foreign trade expands, problems may also grow in other areas.
After a recent visit to China, the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Margaret Hamburg, reported that she is “very encouraged by the partnership that has developed.” At the same time, she acknowledged that the FDA depends on China to inspect facilities producing and processing food and medical-related products destined for export. The number of world-wide sources of such products — not just China — necessarily requires primary reliance on the exporting countries to maintain product quality.
China improved the legislation applicable to food safety when it adopted a food safety law in 2009. Systemic problems, however, will continue to concern the FDA and U.S. consumers, as recent events suggest. In 2008, the contamination of milk powder with toxic quantities of melamine, a food additive that caused illness of hundreds of thousands of Chinese and the deaths of six children, sparked a major scandal. The local government where the contaminated milk originated delayed in notifying relevant authorities for months after the problem was called to its attention.
The use of melamine has not disappeared, and earlier this year the discovery of excessive quantities of it in processed foods led to an emergency recall of dairy products. Reports of arrests have recently appeared after it was once again reported to have been found in tainted milk powder that had been hidden in 2008.
The melamine scandal is symptomatic of widespread product quality problems arising in China that affect both Chinese and foreigners. An example is the falsification by Chinese food suppliers of certificates of adherence to standards for ingredients of food labeled as “kosher.” Many difficulties in monitoring food product quality are not just the responsibility of Chinese officials charged with supervising particular industries, but of foreign companies that import Chinese products. Importers must maintain supervision over their supply chains in China, like the importers of kosher food.
Foreign concerns cannot be limited to detecting health-endangering impurities, adulterations and mislabeling. Even when Chinese agencies discover violations of product safety standards, local governments may seek to protect themselves and offending enterprises within their jurisdiction by concealing the problems. In January, the arrest of four executives and the closing down of their dairy company for selling products contaminated with melamine was announced — 10 months after the arrests and the closing of the company. No explanation was offered of the delay in alerting the public.
Regulation and enforcement of product quality standards is hampered by the concern of local officials to avoid unfavorable publicity. Earlier this year, the Guangdong Province Propaganda Department ordered a ban on reporting a new scandal involving melamine unless the information was released by local authorities.
The adequacy of enforcement is also sometimes called into question by the light punishment of offenders. At least some of the officials who were involved in concealing contaminated melamine not only went unpunished, but later moved on to significant administrative positions. Apparently, their concealment of the problems that had arisen in Hebei did not harm their careers.
Worse yet, citizens who arouse public attention to food problems may be punished for doing so. In February, it was reported in the foreign press that a former employee of China’s Food Quality and Safety Authority was charged with disrupting social order. His offense? After his young son was sickened by melamine in milk powder, he started a website to share information about the danger, which led to thousands of families signing up to share information.
This led to discussions about compensation, and he became an unofficial spokesman for victims. Charged with “inciting” people to go to the trial of executives of the joint venture that had used the toxic chemical in milk powder processed at their plant, he has been reported to face the possibility of a five year sentence to a labor camp.
Difficulties in regulating the quality of consumer products are hardly exclusive to China. While this article was being written, a bill was pending before the U.S. Congress to close serious gaps in American food safety regulation — in the wake of a recall of over half a billion eggs contaminated by salmonella.
Product safety concerns reflect the extraordinarily rapid and uneven growth of Chinese legal institutions since 1979. China’s legal and regulatory regimes are imperfectly mingled with the Maoist bureaucracy created before them. Chinese regulation not only inadequately protects Chinese and foreign consumers of Chinese products but also raises important issues as China’s foreign trade expands.
The frequent failure of local governments to enforce national laws, for example, extends across the entire country and many activities. Illustratively, several months ago a newspaper story by a leading investigative journalist reported that business interests and local officials had colluded to monopolize a province’s vaccination system and ignored reports that vaccination vials were being mishandled, causing children to become seriously ill. The story was squelched and the paper’s chief editor was removed from his position.
The “partnership” that Commissioner Hamburg hopes will help protect American consumers is promising, but it will be inadequate unless China strengthens its enforcement of applicable quality control standards.