A Problem of Scale: Food Safety in China

Sacha Cody

Ten years have passed since China experienced one of its worst food safety incidents. In July of 2008, melamine, a resin used to manufacture plastics, was discovered in several infant milk formula products. It was illegally added to increase the products’ apparent protein content. Six babies died and up to 300,000 were affected, many with kidney stones. Twenty-one companies were implicated. As time has passed, more food safety incidents have occurred and systemic regulatory failures have been identified.

There has not been a shortage of analysis and commentary on, as well as efforts to improve, China’s food safety problem. Regulators have promoted ‘tried-and-tested’ methods from the West to bring China up to global standards. Meanwhile, social scientists have situated food safety problems within questions of morality and social trust amidst rapid urbanization and industrialization of the nation’s food economy.[i] Yet problems continued, and we have been waiting for a more definitive and book-length assessment of the situation.

John Yasuda’s new book On Feeding the Masses: An anatomy of Regulatory Failure in China is worth the wait. The book’s basic premise is that food safety in China suffers from ‘scale politics’, a conclusion Yasuda reached after conducting over 200 interviews with academics, conventional and organic farmers, food processing center staff, food safety auditors, and government officials working in the domestic, export and organic farming sectors across three provinces and in three food categories.

Yasuda takes his interviewees seriously when they say they want to solve food safety problems yet are unsure where to start or what to consider. He dismisses easy explanatory targets, such as authoritarianism, corruption, local obstructionism, lack of political will or even the argument that food safety is a problem developing countries have that is eventually solved. For the quantitatively-minded reader, Yasuda supports these dismissals with robust data at several points in his book.

It is easy to think of scale politics along the following lines: ‘Of course, China is a big country, so there are bound to be problems of scale’. Yasuda’s sophisticated analysis goes much deeper. ‘Scale’ does not refer to geographical scope or population size. It is, rather, relational. Specifically, scale concerns how ‘size interacts with the way individuals perceive and relate to space, jurisdiction, knowledge, time, networks, and management styles’. Scale politics is ‘the fierce conflicts that emerge when policy communities operating at different levels—national, provincial, municipal, prefectural, county, and township—are forced to integrate to develop a unified regulatory system’ (p. 4).

Yasuda finds in China an inability to nest differing scales inside a multilevel regulatory framework because of three perennial problems: an inability to determine the scale of the problem; persistent mismatches across scales of governance; and a lack of sensitivity to scale externalities. The real problem lies with China’s domestic food supply, the largest by volume and strategically important for social stability in China. Yasuda shows how regulation and better food quality found in the export sector does not scale down, while regulation and better quality found across grass-roots sustainable food movements does not scale up for these three reasons. To make his conceptual model and policy framework as robust as possible, Yasuda tests his findings against other industries in China (environmental protection, fishery management, and aviation safety) as well as food safety regulatory frameworks elsewhere (the European Union, India, and the United States). Yasuda’s recommends the EU model as offering the best learnings and hope for China’s future.

Yasuda has big ambitions for his scale politics framework. Food safety in China seems to be his first case in what is an ongoing research agenda to ‘unveil the root causes of the world’s worst regulatory failures, and the solutions to address broken systems of governance’.[ii] Indeed, Yasuda sees similarities between his research in China and significant incidents elsewhere including the Fukushima meltdown, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the Global Financial Crisis.

A research program such as this aspires to inform and influence regulatory frameworks, governance and policy at a national or international level. Naturally, Yasuda has had to make trade-offs between presenting high-level macro analysis and findings versus reveling in detail. As an anthropologist reviewing this book, I can only imagine the fascinating insights and stories that are contained in the presumably hundreds of pages of interview transcripts Yasuda used to build his conceptual framework.

Thus, for readers like myself who are also looking for ‘thick description’ surrounding the dynamics of various actors involved in food regulation in China, or for those seeking an investigation into a particular element of the political economy as it pertains to food in China, we will need to listen to Yasuda present his work – presentations I heard are bursting with fascinating stories from the field – and consult other material.

One book that can be read alongside Yasuda’s is Guanqi Zhou’s recently published work The Regulatory Regime of Food Safety in China: Governance and Segmentation.[iii] Zhou discusses regulatory segmentation in China, and both he and Yasuda are in broad agreement regarding its ill effects. Yet while Yasuda briefly touches on the topic and dismisses it as a failed strategy in managing scale, Zhou builds his entire analysis around it and argues that regulatory segmentation dating back to the 1950s – when redistributive politics allowed food to be siphoned off cheaply from rural collectives to urban work-units – and is the root cause of China’s food safety problems today.

Part of the appeal of Yasuda’s conceptual framework is its ability to incorporate so much analytical territory. Overall, Yasuda’s book will appeal to political scientists and policy analysts researching China, as well as anyone researching or working in the food industries in China. It is also an excellent teaching resource for undergraduate and graduate courses on food and government in China.

[i] Yunxiang Yan, Food safety and social risk in contemporary China, The Journal of Asian Studies 71(3), 2012: 705–29.
[ii] See John K. Yasuda, http://www.johnkyasuda.com, accessed 2 May 2018.
[iii] Guanqi Zhou, The Regulatory Regime of Food Safety in China: Governance and Segmentation, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.