China’s Middle Class a Key Driver in Food Safety Improvements

The best way – and maybe the only way – to see a widespread change in behaviour relies on a change in culture

By Allie Gallant 

Once again, a serious food safety incident originating in China has hit the headlines.

china-food-safetyIn late July, news outlets reported that a supplier for several high profile companies was caught using unsanitary and unsafe practices. Video footage revealed workers salvaging meat from the production line floor and distributing expired products.

Shanghai Husi Food Co., Ltd. is a subsidiary of U.S.-based OSI. It supplies meat to some of the world’s largest fast food chains in China including McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and Starbucks. Restaurants in Japan and Hong Kong were also affected.

“I sincerely apologize to all of our customers in China,” OSI CEO Sheldon Lavin said in a statement. “We will bear the responsibility of these missteps, and will make sure they never happen again.”

Food safety incidents like this do damage beyond a single event. They shake the confidence of trading partners and consumers. They weaken brand integrity. And they damage China’s ability to sustain a healthy, productive food industry. It’s time for China to make a decisive move to stop these incidents from happening.

China’s New Food Safety Law

China’s Food Safety Law was first published in July, 2009, and the public consultation period ended on July 31 of this year. It’s currently being revised by the China Food and Drug Administration for completion by the end of 2014.

The law is designed to be one of the most stringent systems ever put in place, but implementation of the new food safety regulations hasn’t been smooth.

Statistics on Chinese food exports failing the Chinese Inspection and Quarantine (CIQ) Bureau’s exit inspection are significant. The CIQ label confirms that exports have been subject to regulatory oversight of the Chinese export control system. Chinese Taipei topped the list with 47 rejections in the January to April reporting period this year.

An End to China’s Persistent Food Safety Challenges?

The challenges facing China’s new Food Safety Law go deeper than the government and regulatory level. They’re embedded in the culture. In addition to fraud and negligence, “quality fade” is an issue. Quality fade is the widening of profit margins through a deliberate reduction in the quality of materials. Depending on how a supplier decides to cut corners to reduce costs, quality fade can have serious food safety implications.

The best way – and maybe the only way – to see a widespread change in behaviour relies on a change in culture. People are much more likely to adopt behaviours when they see the logic behind them, or if they align with a certain value or overarching belief. The threat of consequences, even severe ones, can be pushed to the peripheral of the mind if they are less than immediate. This is especially true where profits and growth are involved.

In China, a food safety cultural shift is underway. The growth of the middle class is driving a departure from traditional meals eaten in the home to the Western ideal of having meals out at restaurants.

This growing market means there’s more competition for restaurant chains and brand names to earn consumer trust. The Chinese public is aware of the safety and quality issues in their domestic food market. It’s led many Chinese to prefer foreign chains. They expect global companies to import their stringent food safety standards in ways the Chinese government hasn’t been able to.

Competition, consumer empowerment and the ability to vote with your wallet may provide incentive for change. Food fraud relies on deception for a quick profit, but long-term success relies on safe, quality food. As more and more Chinese enter the middle class, and until China can curtail the continuing food safety issues plaguing its domestic market, imports from beyond the country’s border will continue to gain prominence.

Taking risks to make money in the food industry is a short-sighted plan. Businesses ultimately can’t survive the tarnished reputation and complete lack of trust that comes from repeated food safety scares, especially as consumer choice expands.

About the Author

Allie Gallant is a freelance writer and blogger; follow her GFSR blogs on Food Safety in a Global Village.


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