Tough action taken against high-profile food safety violations in China was spurred by public fury. But piecemeal enforcement, however vigorous, will not put an end to cases of exploding watermelons, glow-in-the-dark pork and such. Bizarre abuses still crop up with alarming frequency, and sometimes old malpractices make a comeback. China has seen nine major scandals in a mere six years, the latest one being the supply of expired meat that has affected global brands such as McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Burger King.
China's highest court has demanded stiff punishment, including the life sentence and death penalty, for egregious cases of food fraud. This has only partly placated consumers bombarded by outrageous revelations such as oil from gutter waste, fake eggs, poisonous milk powder, chicken feet that were almost a half-century old, and rat and fox meat disguised as lamb and beef.
Public distrust is not misplaced in the light of systemic challenges facing food security in China. Unethical acts often go beyond rogue individuals, and even the management of big operations have been implicated. In the case of expired meat, six executives from Shanghai Husi Food, owned by an American group, were detained by investigators. In many instances, it is hard to ascribe blame as supply chains are hydra-headed.
Modernisation is not always a panacea. The industrialisation of food production has led to cheaper food but it also exacts a heavy cost, as the West has seen. For example, an over-dependence on antibiotics to fatten farm animals quickly and control disease in overcrowded pens poses a public health hazard, as it promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Domestic legislation designed to curb specific outbreaks of food-borne illness can achieve only so much when there are many gaps left unattended in food safety systems at national and global levels. The focus needs to shift to preventing rather than largely containing the ill effects of large-scale food contamination. This calls for coordinated supervision of interlinked food supply chains and the harmonisation of standards. The task is not to be underestimated. In China, for example, "food safety is a massive social systematic project... related to technical progress, economic development, social administration, and environmental quality", as the Global Food Safety Forum described the challenge.
Hence, it is very much a case of ca-veat emptor where the consumer is concerned. But concerted consumer action can help to persuade multinational players to go beyond just compliance with local regulations and make greater use of reliable third-party audits of supply lines to restore customer confidence in their global brands.