On May 2nd, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) of China issued Interpretations on food safety criminal cases. The next day, a spokesman of the SPC further elaborated on the Interpretations during a press conference. The judicial progress is certainly encouraging, but more efforts beyond the legal system are required to effectively combat food safety lapses.
Food Legislation Elaborated
According to the content, one important function of the Interpretations is to clarify the boundary between the two basic food safety crimes, “the production and sale of substandard food” and “the production and sale of toxic and harmful food”. The maximum sentences of the two are life imprisonment and the death sentence, respectively, as shown in China’s Crime Law.
Because the use of gutter oil (recycled cooking oil that poses serious threat to human health) was used as an example by the SPC spokesman, the Chinese media reported on the Interpretations with titles like “Death Sentence to the Gutter Oil”, which successfully attracted the readers’ attention but oversimplified the whole story. Some highlights of the Interpretations are as below:
-Different conditions for levels of the crimes. Originally vague descriptions, such as “causing serious harm to human health” and “particularly serious consequences”, are clarified with detailed descriptions.
-By including pesticides and animal drugs in the discussion, the Interpretations cover both processed foods and unprocessed agricultural products.
-The whole food supply chain is covered, including food production, sale, transportation and storage. Additionally, providing assistance to the production and sale of substandard/toxic and harmful food, including supervision irregularities, also leads to severe sentences under the Interpretation.
Enforcement Gaps, a Tip of the Iceberg
By clarifying food safety crimes for the first time, there is now a correlating bridge between real-world cases and existing legislation. However, enforcement measures need to catch up, and there is still a long way to go.
A major hurdle to law enforcement is the weak testing system. In the recent case of aldicarb ginger, products targeting the domestic market, although containing a high level of toxic insecticide residues, were sold normally because the samples sent for testing were prepared by the farmers themselves, rather than officials. If the supervision system remains ineffective like this, law cannot play its role.
Another problem is some impacts of unsafe food may not be directly visible, so there is often a lack of evidence to prove the severity of crime. For example, although many types of pesticides and additives are proved to be carcinogenic, which means they are able to facilitate cancer development, it is extremely hard, if possible at all, to affirm in a certain case that a specific food additive has led to the disease.
Beyond the Legal Force
The justice system may prevent people from committing crimes, but it does not address the source of criminal behaviors. To prevent the crimes from taking place with a sustained effect, it is more important to study the root of food safety crimes and rethink the current development paradigm.
As pointed out by Professor Wen Tiejun, Dean of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University, the astonishing diversity of food safety issues in China took a mere three to four decades to evolve, mainly driven by the pursuit of an industrialized agriculture system on a continent of small-scale traditional farming system. According to Wen, improving the livelihood of farmers by diversifying their income is the key to ensure food safety at the source.
In a growing supply chain of modern food systems, farmers are always at the bottom, and their income is reduced every time a new link is added to the chain. Without other sources of income, farmers tend to increase agricultural productivity at the expense of applying banned toxic pesticides and polluting chemical fertilizers. A longer supply chain also means more inlets of food additives. Under such circumstances, a food safety law is very likely to be bypassed, especially when obvious enforcement gaps exist.
Therefore, compared with external supervision, it may be more effective to promote internal supervision within the organizations of food producers and local communities. The concept makes good sense, and is similar to the reason why more and more customers would like to know the farmers who grow and sell them their food – increased income for the farmers, and enhanced connections between people.
A good medical doctor should be able to identify and fix the cause of a illness, rather than simply eliminate the symptoms. Legislation is not enough to bring back the positive externalities of agriculture and safe food products that China used to enjoy before its headlong rush to industrialize its farming system. The G.D.P-oriented development paradigm needs to be shifted to one that focuses on creating sustainable livelihoods for food producers and building organizations that favor their healthy prosperity.
Photo courtesy of Erwyn van der Meer