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Despite a string of initiatives on food safety promised by Beijing policymakers, China’s latest seafood-safety mess looks worryingly familiar.

Shrimp injected with a translucent glue-like gelatin was initially spotted by a consumer in Tianjin in September 2009, whose blogging on the issue drew little national notice. However, when the same girl found the same gelatin-injected shrimp in a retail outlet in Xingtai Food Market in Tianjin in February 2012, she called a local journalist. Coming quickly after Chinese New Year, a peak season of seafood consumption and gift-giving, the resulting news story sent news crews from local media around the country into seafood markets nationwide.

In China, which has sanctioned the death penalty for food-safety violators, senior officials from the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) have already periodically appeared in the press this year to vow higher standards. However, the challenges to improving traceability and safety of local produce are obvious from visits to numerous supermarkets and wet markets in Beijing and Shanghai, where scant information or tracking data is available, in particular on wet product.

China may have a national electronic food-safety tracking system based on wireless technology in place by the end of 2015, said Sun Pishu, head of the IT firm Inspur Group and a legislator at the recent annual meeting of China’s parliament. The system as outlined by Sun will compel producers to put barcodes on products tracking information on origin as well as date of production and producers’ details.

However, the highly fragmented nature of China’s producer base — 200 million farmers, 400,000 mostly small- and medium-sized processors — will make the roll-out complex, said Sun. A contradicting and overlapping system of regulations — departments of health, quarantine and inspection (AQSIQ) and SFDA all have individual inspection powers — along with a slow pace of research and reform has been blamed by Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu for continued food-safety scandals.

Ongoing food-safety slip-ups are a worry given Chinese food exports will rise 400 percent between 2010 and 2020, much of it in labor-intensive catagories like seafood, of which China is now the No. 1 farmer and exporter.

The private sector has been to some extent filling the gaps left by the official inspection process. Food safety has spawned a cottage industry of capable food-safety specialists who audit Chinese farms and factories for overseas buyers and also help local firms get international quality certifications such as ISO. Based in Qingdao, a global seafood-processing hub, Kevin Tilstone, CEO of KTech Food Consultancy, said food-safety scandals have made Chinese food-safety authorities such as the China Inspection Quarantine (CIQ) more focused on factory inspections of firms shipping food overseas.

Yet corruption in the process — most commonly, food-safety and quality certifications being forged or obtained on false information — is an ongoing problem, said Tilstone, who has done factory audits of companies like Dalian Yudao Foodstuffs, a seafood processor. 

The absence of training for food-safety professionals is another problem. “China’s education system is lacking in practical aspects. You do a three-year masters in food safety but the first two are largely spent learning English. In the last few years food safety has developed but not to UK standards,” said Tilstone, who himself holds a degree in food science from Britain’s Humbershire University.

As shipments soar, key import markets like the European Union and United States simply don’t have the resources to check Chinese food. Since 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only been able to inspect 1.5 percent of Chinese imports. A particular issue is the World Trade Organization principle of “equivalence,” which compels importing authorities to take Chinese peers at their word. That explains why 4,000 pets died from melamine-laced Chinese pet food between 2007 and 2008.

Even as China scrambles to tighten its food-safety regime, there are ominous reminders of inherent weaknesses in tracking the distribution chain. A seafood seller told Tianjin’s daily newspaper Tianjin WanBao that sellers of the gelatin-laced shrimp have simply frozen their product “and will certainly put them into market again after a while.”

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