Food safety at a crossroads

In the wake of the melamine scandal in China, attention has turned to food safety issues. But tighter safety standards are of little help without robust moral standards, writes Zhou Li.

Last year’s melamine-in-milk scandal led to sombre reflection in China. According to the health ministry, 294,000 babies and infants acquired kidney stones due to drinking contaminated milk; 154 became seriously ill and six died.

The event has been seen as a failing of the dairy industry, a problem with supply chains and corporate governance. But the melamine scandal was not simply a business issue.

Plenty of energy has been expended handling these incidents, but our efforts have been misdirected. These events cannot be prevented until we realise that simply pursuing the culprits after the event is an ineffective response.

Unfortunately, this is where most of our attention is now focused. It is also naive to think that external supervision, such as the new food safety law, or internal controls, such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) or ISO certification, will solve the problem.

The underlying cause of the melamine scandal was the food industry’s pursuit of profit – and the complete lack of moral standards of those involved.

Where there are no moral standards, there is scope for public harm in the pursuit of profit. Members of the public only know about food products at the point of consumption; there is no knowledge about the long-term or hidden dangers. One party can make a profit, while the other suffers. Honest manufacturers cannot survive, and neither can healthy patterns of consumption.

A moral vacuum means that members of the public pay with their health and environment. And this is a rising price that is difficult to quantify. Bad money drives out good; poor quality milk drives out high quality; unethical businesses drive out ethical ones; and bad systems take over from good systems.

Food is what economists call a “credence good”: an object whose long-term impact is difficult for the consumer to ever know. Nobody puts their food under a microscope to check for bacteria; or uses reagents to check what chemicals are present. Neither do they check with a nutritionist that a meal meets their needs. We only trust that food will be good for us, we do not really know how healthy, nutritious or safe it really is. 

This means that simply pursuing the guilty party is unfeasible, except in circumstances where a product results in immediate illness or death. In some cases, there might be decades of accumulation and reaction in the body before effects are identified. Sometimes it is impossible to hold anyone responsible, or even to establish a relationship between past consumption and present health issues.

There is no proof, only conjecture. It is now common for children to reach puberty early; male fertility is falling; and cancers of the digestive tract are on the increase. We can infer that hormones and additives in our food are to blame, but we cannot prove it – much less point the finger at any particular company, type of food, or period of time.

The melamine incident has brought food safety in China to a crossroads. We must now increase the methods we use to ensure food safety, or the lives of our descendents will be at risk. If we regard the incident as a question of poor management or just a phase of development, and do nothing more than discuss corporate social responsibility and oversight, food safety problems will remain concealed. Traders in additives have told me: “As long as no one dies right away.” There is still a chance to take a harder look at the problem, but we must act now.

Re-examining the food industry requires these three steps:

First, we must change our ideas about “staple” foods and food products. Food is not only a daily requirement; it is a strategic good and a question of national security. It is a part of our food security, food safety and food sovereignty. Food products also have ecological, cultural, social, traditional and artistic functions. The nature of food as a “credence good” needs to be acknowledged, and from there moral rules must be placed at the heart of our food systems. If we continue to view food as a mere commodity, these scares will not end. 

Second, we must repair the imbalanced structure of our food systems. Of the main players in the food system: producers, wholesalers/intermediaries, consumers and government, the intermediaries not only control the ingredients and sale price of food products, but they also control the pricing standards. They have helped change the public concept of food from a natural to a processed product. Not only do we need corporate social responsibility, but we also need a consumer social responsibility movement, with consumers using their spending power to balance out the power of intermediaries. We also need to clarify the government’s role in food safety in order to ensure public health.

Finally, we need to rebuild the way we structure social trust. Without this, moral standards cannot take root. Any system without moral standards lacks foundations. The melamine incident was only the tip of the iceberg: a profit-driven world lies beneath the surface. A new social structure based on trust, culture, systems, society, economy and finance needs to be built. Only then can we have a healthy food system, and protect the environment and public health.

Zhou Li is deputy professor at the School of Agricultural and Rural Development, Renmin University.

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