china and safety

Posted on June 7, 2007


It had to happen sooner or later, and for China, it’s finally waking up to the ugly realities of the danger of its production methods, especially in the area of food and medication.

The past few months have exposed an embarrassing but chilling series of food and product safety neglect by China’s manufacturers. First there was the pet food recall in the US, when those made in China were found to contain melamine, and more recently, toothpaste that contained harmful substances was found in the US and a few Latin American countries.

The international headlines screaming the dangers of these products from China and their harm to the buying public’s health had finally shamed the Chinese government into doing something about its food and drug safety regulations as the authorities announced plans to introduce nationwide inspections.

Ambitions plans were also declared by the Chinese authorities, such as the establishment of a new food and drug safety guarantee system. It promised to have new controls on food and drug imports and exports and increase random testing on medicines by 2010. And the government planned to conduct safety checks on a large majority of food makers while its regulators would crack down on the sale of counterfeit drugs and medical devices.

It all sounds good on paper but with pervasive corruption and the vastness of China being the reality, it remains to be seen if the enforcement would be rigorous enough.

Sadly, China’s society is gripped by a relentless materialistic mentality. With communism’s erosion and the absence of religion as a guiding force, mammonism is more often than not the people’s inspiration.

Officials can be easily bought over with bribes, especially those outside of big cities, while greedy businessmen disregard health risks and have no qualms about unethical business practices and cutting corners to save costs and make a quick buck. Workers hired on the cheap are often too ignorant, afraid or weak to know better or resist when pressed into complicity and wrong-doing.

But more distressingly, deep down the Chinese authorities’ attitude had hardly changed either.

Its first reaction to any accusations to the harm of its food or medical exports, as always, is to just plain deny anything.

It’s reminiscent of how it mishandled the SARS epidemic, which spread a lot further and infected more than it should have, as China kept mum and buried its head in the sand, pretending nothing is going on and refusing to issue warnings to contain the spread.

The Chinese authorities still haven’t learnt its lessons very well, as seen in its handling of bird flu, but constant international pressure is making it rethink its strategy a little more.

If there is one tactic that the Chinese psyche would respond to, it would most likely be shame.

Naming and shaming, and bringing to light the wrongdoings of its manufacturers, have more often than not succeeded in making the Chinese authorities take action.

Unfortunately, the shady practices and unscrupulous businessmen have been around for ages, and their activities are only recently surfacing as China goes international with its products.

For years, it has been lax about goods for domestic consumption. There have been various cases of inferior or downright dangerous materials being included in food and medication produced in China. One famous case was the sale of infant formula that was watered down and substituted with bogus materials, which led to the deaths, organ damage and malnourishment of a large amount of babies in China. That case caused anguish and provoked condemnation in the country but it hasn’t made the authorities do much.

Another case involved slimming pills, which contained a variant of fenfluramine, an appetite suppressant that had been banned in the US for damaging heart valves. The pills led to deaths and health problems to its users, mostly women. Those pills were exported to Singapore and caused a death there too, along with health complication in others. One of the victims took the case to court in Singapore, but only the Singaporean importer of the pills was punished.

With China’s growing economic might and as its products find their way to more countries, more needs to be done by its authorities to ensure that stringent standards and proper procedures are followed by its manufacturers. It will definitely be a tough and expensive job for the Chinese authorities as its regulatory system is weak away from the center, and local officials are often fiefs that do not strictly follow central orders.

But if it is serious about growing its economic power, maintaining credibility with importers of other countries and ensuring that a “Made in China” label does not become equated with inferior or dangerous goods, China will have no other choice but to get tough and crack down on errant manufacturers and corrupt officials. It will have to do it soon too, before the mistrust of Chinese products spreads even more and clips its fast-growing sector of economic growth.