How Lax Regulations Are Turning China Into A Food Safety Nightmare

It’s been a pretty terrible week for food safety in China.

On Monday, Xinhua reported that a factory in the city of Kunming was using pond water to make rice vermicelli — specifically, pond water used for washing feet. That same day, the official state broadcasting group CCTV released the results of an investigation uncovering that ice served at a Beijing KFC location had 13 times more bacteria than toilet water. And on Friday, the New York Times reported on a new trend in China: buying and smuggling baby formula from overseas to avoid potentially tainted Chinese milk, pointing to a increasing distrust of domestic products.

These developments come as the U.S. plans stricter regulations for imported foods. The FDA announced Friday that it will impose the same standards on imported foods that it does on domestic foods. That means that foreign manufacturers will have to document factory conditions, conduct audits of their facilities, and subject themselves to FDA inspections. The regulations place emphasis on preventing contamination rather than simply waiting to respond to outbreaks after they happen.

The Chinese have criticized its government for taking the latter approach, which makes it much easier to get away with producing and selling tainted and harmful products. While China does have government agencies charged with food safety, they lack uniform standards for enforcing rules. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the agencies’ “sampling and test results from different departments often conflict with each other.” China also has lax safety standards which list only 62 chemical pollutants as harmful — compared with 4,000 in the United States and 10,000 in Japan — and about a quarter of the standards are outdated by at least 10 years.


Most importantly, Chinese government officials underestimate the extent of the food safety violations. Although Prime Minister Li Keqiang has pledged to prioritize food safety, he later claimed that food safety issues are “only local, emerging problems.” And the head of China’s FDA thought that food safety is “not characterized with major systematic risk”.

Chinese consumers are accustomed to food safety violations, and as evidenced by the burgeoning formula smuggling industry, they are finding ways to circumvent the domestic food supply. But the continuous onslaught of incidents, from the notorious tainted milk scandal a few years ago to recent reports of rat meat being sold as lamb and Shanghai area farmers dumping contaminated pigs into the Huangpu River, has not gone unnoticed.

After revelations that KFC’s Chinese suppliers used illegal drugs to fatten their chickens, the chain’s sales tumbled in China, a major profit center. A 2012 Pew survey found that 41 percent of Chinese were deeply concerned about food safety, compared to just 12 percent four years earlier.