The Regulatory Regime of Food Safety in China

Louis Augustin-Jean

This book usefully complements the rapidly expanding literature on food safety in China. As indicated by its title, it adopts the theoretical perspective of the regulatory regime; more specifically, it hypothesizes that the ‘systemic regulatory failure of China’s food safety regime can be explained by the segmentation of the regulatory regime’ (p. 2). Then, the author differentiates four segments within the food regime, each regulating the food eaten predominantly by a distinct type of consumers – consumers located overseas; the ‘politically privileged’; the ‘affluent consumers’; and the general consumers. This, in turn, supposedly affects food safety adversely, especially for the last category of consumers.

The argumentation is developed in nine chapters. After the Introduction, the next two chapters present the concepts of systemic regulatory failure and regulatory regime respectively. The author defines her four analytical categories of consumers – ordinary consumers representing 80 to 85 per cent of the total population. This is followed, in Chapter 4, by a depiction of the regulatory framework and its evolution since 1949. The segmentation is traced back from the origin of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), when different ministries and administrations took charge of some specific aspects of food safety – leading to redundancy and overlapping responsibilities. In as early as 1952, the supervision of the international food trade was placed under the control of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, which emphasized its specificity. At about the same time, some ‘strategic sectors were equipped with their own food regulatory agencies’ (p. 99). This was the case for the railway industry and the military, which both benefited from their own food safety regulations (the specific regulations for the military were even included in the 2009 food safety law).

Despite these regulatory evolutions, food safety was not a major issue during the first thirty years of the PRC – contrary to food security (Chapter 5). Food safety incidents were mostly related to food canteen and poor hygiene and sanitation (leading to the implementation of the Provisional Food Hygiene Control Ordinance of 1965 – presented in Chapters 4 and 6). After 1978, as the food system became more complex with the growth of the private sector, many actors became exceedingly motivated by profits. This was made possible by loopholes in the regulatory framework, which created opportunities for unscrupulous individuals. The number and types of food safety incidents multiplied, and included adulteration, contamination, etc. This point is presented with the help of quantitative data as well as by examples generally taken from the media; they confirm that food safety issues can be generated by any type of products sold in any type of venture, whether it is an informal mom-and-pop store or a supermarket. However, in showing that food safety issues can arise from everywhere, these examples weaken the author’s argument that affluent consumers are less exposed to food risks than ordinary ones – a point which I will discuss below.

The next three chapters all adopt the same organization, aiming to expound the effect of the segmentation for each category of consumers – the main point being that ordinary consumers are much disadvantaged. In accordance with the theoretical framework developed earlier, each chapter tackles a specific regulatory issue – standard settings (Chapter 6), communication (Chapter 7), and implementation (Chapter 8). They all end with a specific case study, which is analysed qualitatively. Taken together, these three chapters show that the ‘politically privileged’ benefit from better food and a better information system. Food exports are also regulated by a specific and more stringent system – and not many problems are thus reported. However, it is curious that the author has mostly ignored the existence of scandals, such as contaminated dumplings exported to Japan in 2008, or the recurrent problems with chicken exports (the latest one in 2014, which forced McDonald’s Japan to shift its supply to Thailand) – not to mention the pet food recall in 2007. Finally, affluent consumers, to some extent, also benefit from higher quality food – but this was not fully demonstrated by the author, as it will be explained below.

Thus, in substance, the author does show the existence of four different regulatory systems and address them to four categories of consumers (more precisely, three systems only, since the food bought by affluent consumers is still managed by the general system), but not that this segmentation itself is the source of food safety crises. Related to this last point, the author never questions if it would be feasible to extend the regulatory system for the ‘politically privileged’, or the overseas consumers, to the whole population. After all, it is quite different to produce for 300 million people than for 1.4 billion – not to mention the likely price increase, which may lead to unaffordability for a significant part of the population.

In fact, it is the fragmentation of the general system which is the source of problems, as she emphasized at various points. This is manifested in the existence of conflicting standards (pp. 147–149), of multiple agencies with overlapping or unclear responsibilities (pp. 85 fwd), etc. While Zhou has not fully addressed this question, the point has been masterfully demonstrated by John Yasuda.[1] Although Zhou could not have benefited from this material at the time of the publication, she might still have deepened another aspect, about the ‘politicization of science’, which she only mentions in passing but has not fully analysed. According to her, standards are not only (or mainly) created to protect consumers but are the product of subtle negotiations: ‘conflicts within existing standards systems, indicative of the intertwining interest from various food regulators, made updating standards extremely difficult’. However, the truth of this statement is not only restricted to China, but is consistent with analyses done at the international level;[2] it would have been fascinating to know more on the way standards are effectively negotiated and implemented in China.

Another, and a much more problematic, issue is the fact that the book is already outdated at the time of its publication as the analysis stops in 2013. Thus, the author chose deliberately to ignore all the evolutions which have occurred since. This is a very puzzling decision since the food regulatory framework in China has undergone radical modifications and transformations since 2013 – not to mention the implementation of a new food safety law in 2015. A second, but less critical, limitation is that the author argues that wealthy customers have access to safer food simply because they can afford to pay more. This hypothesis remains undemonstrated and is even contradicted with by herself. In fact, she mentions that affluent consumers located in developed areas shop in ‘developed distribution channels – such as supermarkets (…) –’ which are supposedly safer, since ‘they can only sell food with positive quality inspection results’ (p. 128). This statement is refuted when she noted that Walmart has sold expired cooking oil, Carrefour, mouldy bread, and Starbucks, expired sandwiches, while Sudan Red was found in McDonald’s chicken wings (p. 121). In addition to this, the incentive to cheat customers is usually stronger when the original product is expensive than when it is cheap.

Third, the focus on segmentation issues overlooks the existence of interactions between the fragmentated regulatory frameworks. Transnational regulations, especially consultations at the WTO, profoundly influence the evolution of the Chinese food safety system – a point brilliantly illustrated by Francis Snyder.[3] Finally, the book contains a few imprecisions. For instance, Zhou indicates that the Pu’er tea from Yunnan has ‘no (or few) standards … to regulate the quality and safety of this new star in the domestic market. Consumers choose Pu’er tea mostly based on their preferences for certain sub-categories of tea’ (p. 161). In fact, the Pu’er tea, which is categorized as a geographical indication, is regulated by the Standard GB/T 22111-2008.

Despite these limitations, the book brings interesting insights into the regulatory system of food safety in China. It is a useful entry point into the intricate question of food safety in China, a topic of main concern since the contaminated milk powder incident in 2008.


[1] John K. Yasuda, Why food safety fails in China: The politics of scale, The China Quarterly, no. 223, 2015: 745-769; John K. Yasuda, On Feeding the Masses: An Anatomy or Regulatory Failure in China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
[2] Ching-Fu Lin, Scientification of politics or politicization of science: Reassessing the limits of international food safety lawmaking, The Columbia Science & Technology Law Review XV (Fall), 2013: 1–40.
[3] Francis Snyder, Food Safety Law in China: Making Transnational Law, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016.