Before the Food Gets to Market: Are We Paying Enough Attention to the Ministry of Agriculture's Role in Food Safety in China?

Feb 28 2014, 2:35pm CST | by

By John Balzano

Discussion of Chinese food safety law and regulation frequently focuses on the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) and the laws and regulations that it administers.  CFDA, and its predecessor agency the State Food and Drug Administration, made headlines at the center of the melamine scandal and the resulting and very public death sentence and execution of its former leader Zheng Xiaoyu.

But that is really only one portion of the story surrounding food safety in China.  Less is said about the Ministry of Agriculture’s (MOA) role in supervising raw agricultural produce and vegetables, poultry, and pork products up until they enter wholesale markets. Just like CFDA, the MOA administers its own food safety law, called the Agricultural Product Quality and Safety Law. It also implements laws, regulations, and policies for the safety of pork, chicken, and seafood. Unlike the CFDA, which has been reorganized and has seen massive legislative and regulatory overhauls, MOA has seen much less change in its role.

This seems strange, because the problems that this agricultural system faces are not small. These include illegal pesticides, fertilizers, and veterinary drugs, as well as rotten or disease-ridden produce and meat. These issues are compounded by problems with the traceability of products, which are coming from hundreds of millions of small farmers and animal breeders, all with different safety issues, to markets where the products are pooled. As a result, it is often difficult to find out where the problem lies, and the contaminants change so frequently that it is also difficult to determine what to test for. Huge blind-spots also exist in MOA regulation, for example, with respect to animal and pet food in China. Nearly no regulations on core issues exist in this important area.

The best products, or products from the larger, more trusted, certified farms, may be directed to export. And, a more recent news story even suggests that many in China believe that the farmers keep many of the better, safer products for their own consumption. What we are left with, as a result, is a system not only with significant problems, but also with severe distrust among those that it serves.

Attention to fixing these problems seems to be growing stronger lately, but unlike with CFDA, the proposed solutions do not appear to be agency reorganization or new legislation or regulations. For example, in December 2013, the State Council (China’s main executive body) issued a document calling for stronger supervision of agricultural product quality and safety by local governments, as well as more attention to implementing standards. But nowhere in the document did the State Council call for revision of the Agricultural Product Quality and Safety Law or any particular new laws. Indeed, a recent article in the Chinese press indicates that, while an amendment will eventually come, MOA feels more research needs to be done first.

This leaves us with more to ponder and some to watch. If MOA is really playing a lesser role, why? Is there a structural problem, such being caught between promotion of the agricultural economy and measures to control its safety? Or is it a problem of resources?

Perhaps it is a question of paying more attention to MOA. Will this increased public and government attention, at least on the policy level, lead to something more substantial in this area? The fact that we do not have answers to these questions means that it may be a good time to recognize and more closely follow MOA’s role in promoting food safety in China.

Source: Forbes Business


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