On June 26, 2017, researchers from Zijin Media Think Tank (ZMT) conducted an online seminar on the topic of "Food Safety Risk and its Governance" with different opinions and advice proposed.
In recent years, food safety has always been a hot topic, especially with negative news and reports.On June 26, researchers from Zijin Media Think Tank (ZMT) conducted an online seminar on the topic of "Food Safety Risk and its Governance". The seminar was chaired by Song Yahui, ZMT researcher and associate professor from the Law School of Nanjing University. Min Xueqin, senior researcher of ZMT, Wu Yingzi, senior researcher, Zheng Anguang, Yan Zhihua, Wang Ning, Kong Zhaowei, Shi Aichun and other researchers also participated. The seminar focused on the following critical issues: the characteristics of food risk and its challenges; the public awareness of the risk and their responses; governmental response to the public response.
Where does the food safety risk lie in?
Since 2002, the EU, Taiwan and mainland media have successively reported to detect the composition of contraceptives in the milk of some brands, which aroused hot debate. We can’t help asking where these contraceptive compositions come from?
Senior Researcher Song says that this fact reflects the complexity of food safety issues. After the long process from the farmland to the dining table, people do not know where to find the source of food contamination. The issue of food safety risk management and control is as difficult as giving a prescription without determining the cause of a disease. Till now, the origin of the contraceptive compositions remains unknown. The case in Taiwan has been clarified by the media that some of them were merely the cow’s bodily secretions. But people do not believe it. Researcher Min says that food issue could be deducted as a population issue. Researcher Yan mentions that some large companies have already designed a Traceability System (TS). Senior researcher Song further questions on how to establish a complete and efficient TS. Since there is a long industrial chain from the farm to the milk products we drink, a mistake in any link will lead to failure of the entire TS. This is exactly why China cannot establish its own TS. Germany's TS on food performs well in its tracing of "raw eggs."Each egg has a string of code with the first number of 0 or 1 or 2.People can input the number and get all the information about that egg, like when it was laid and by which hen. The Tracing of raw eggs have two functions: first, the hens carrying pathogenic diseases can be detected and killed; second, farms are supervised to control the addition of chemicals. In comparison, the tracing of milk cannot be as precise as that of raw eggs, generally back to the ranch.
Only when we determine the risk we want to control can we effectively control it. What are the characteristics of food security risk? What are the differences between food security risk and other disasters such as natural disasters, environmental pollution and traffic accidents? Researcher Song responds that the government alone is ineffective on this issue because food safety issues involve technology, information, public participation, reaction speed, and so on. Researcher Yan thinks that food, like medicine, is an issue concerning ethical bottom line. According to an empirical study, three major sources of China's food safety risk are the abuse of additives, doping adulteration, and excessive microbial proportion, a considerable part of which is caused by human beings. Researcher Zheng says that since the risk of food safety is man-made, it is controllable. And the legal costs of violation of food safety should be higher than the current level. However, researcher Song responds that the legal costs stipulated in China’s laws are already very high, much higher than that of Germany. Thus, the key problem lies in the probability of investigation. The food safety issue will be tackled effectively if the government attaches enough importance to it. Researcher Kong says that the characteristics of food risk are more diverse than that of natural disasters, environmental pollution, or traffic accidents. It can lead to genetic changes, endanger human safety, and affect social stability and national stability.
Researcher Shi mentions that in reality ordinary people eat common vegetables from the local markets, while some powerful governmental departments have food supply from special food base. Researcher Song agrees with this statement and believed that this may explain why the government does not pay enough attention to the governance of food safety. China's current system of food safety management is actually a stress - response system, that is, the government merely tackles with problems that are reflected by the people. But the problem is that at most cases, people do not realize that there is a problem. Many farmers plant two pieces of land, one piece for planting their own food, and the other for plants for sale. However, since the cucumber farmers also need rice planted by other farmers, all the negative effect from their farming misconducts will finally be returned to themselves, forming the so-called mutual-harm mechanism. Thus, it must be realized that the food safety is an issue that is related to every individual and it must be tackled by them all.
On the root causes of food safety risks, Researcher Shi says that we have always been concerned with economic development, but ignored the protection of ecological environment. Some long-term problems have been increasingly prominent in the field of food safety, especially heavy metals, plastic film, livestock, and other serious human-made pollution. What’s more, soil pollution, water pollution and excessive application of pesticides have resulted in endless food safety risks. Researcher Song believes that food safety risk information is extremely difficult to access under the condition of poor information communication mechanism and questioned credibility of information provider. Small workshops are scattered all over the country and their production process is like a black box that people knew neither how they produce nor where they sell. Compared with these small workshops, the large ranches are more traceable. Researcher Wu says that food safety issues let people sense more closely than ever the risks in society.
Researcher Shi holds that the original problem lies in agriculture. Opportunism is believed to be the greatest damage to agriculture and cheapness is the last straw for luring farmers away from farming. Researcher Kong mentions that the debate on the risk of genetically modified food to human has never stopped. Researcher Song proposes that, for the problems that human’s rationality cannot solve, the best choice is make them open and transparent and let the public choose for their own. This is also the reason why genetically modified food must be marked clearly. Researcher Min agrees with this statement, that information disclosure make people be responsible for their choices, including the irrational ones. Researcher Song follows that Germany in the 1970s put forward the "Risk Prevention Principle", that is, as long as evidence exists that there is a significant risk in a particular area, it is necessary to strictly control it despite insufficient evidence. As a result, following the principle of Risk Prevention, Germany is not well developed in the industries of food, genetically modification and biotechnology.
How to control food safety risk?
There are more and more restaurants across the country whose kitchens, equipped with glass walls, are moved forward to the center of the dining hall, so that every customer can see the cooking process. For customers, this makes them feel that this restaurant is trustworthy. But actually, this is the result of competition. Certain restaurant decides to take the initiative to disclose their cooking process to the public as a demonstration of good quality. This is the so-called "Bright Kitchen Stove" action, letting market competition regulate food safety. But, how exactly?
Researcher Kong says that the control of food safety risk depends on a whole system composed of the government, the society, the public, and responsible media practitioners. Researcher Song believes that "Bright Kitchen Stove" action can only control the final link of a very long food industry chain. More attention should be paid on the other links. That is why the food traceability system is in need. The establishment of the food traceability system requires government’s initiative to establish an official or third-party information platform, with which all the related processing information of each kind of food is recorded with a two-dimensional code. After scanning the code, people get the immediate information of the food. But this requires a large amount of governmental investment. Another difficulty lies in the design of efficient food and drug supervision and management system. At present, the three-in-one reform of the grassroots government, which integrates the governance of food and medicine, quality inspection and industry and commerce, deviates from the original concept of efficient food and drug regulation. The Food and Drug Administration is too busy supervising all these three sectors to regulate food quality. Consequently, they only supervise the sector that is demanded by the higher-level government.
The grassroots regulation remains at the level of checking business license, the personnel’s health certificates, fire safety, pesticide residues on vegetables, etc., researcher Min says. The food and drug regulation must be specialized. Researcher Wang mentions that a third-party platform needs to be established as soon as possible, incorporating three areas of legislation, vocational education, media supervision all together.
Researcher Wu agrees that the current food safety management should become regular and specialized. Researcher Song says that the media can play a big role. The government is pressure-responsive, and the media can help the government set regulatory agenda. The media should pay more attention to food safety issues. What’s more, the “hard” laws and regulations should interplay with flexible "soft laws." The “hard” law is efficient to large enterprises like KFC with industrialized processing chains, while “soft” law is useful for small workshops. Researcher Wang proposes that the ethics education and qualification inspection, the media supervision and protection of consumers’ rights, as well as the severe punishment should be conducted in order throughout the regulation process.
Researcher Min points out that the current technical threshold is relatively low, thus rendering the establishment of two-dimensional code traceability system possible. Researcher Song thinks that this is a very demanding task because cooperation among all producers throughout the industry chain is needed and a mistake in one link will lead to the collapse of the whole system. In response to Min’s question of whether the first farm to implement the traceability system wins the market, Song mentions that some farms are already engaged in private orders by which customers can drink milk from the cow they ordered. Customers can regularly check the cow's health report and food safety test report, which are written privately by these enterprises. Undoubtedly, these enterprises take great advantages in the market competition. The government should learn from these enterprises. Besides, there is a lack of a credible third party to lead the system. Intermediaries are more appropriate for this role than the government. Actually, government, media, experts, the public and smart phones can all play an important role in the food safety management system. The next urgent problem is how to integrate the above resources so that they can cooperate to maintain a basically safe food industry chain.