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China’s Food Controversies

As we have discussed on multiple different occasions, Australia has an incredible reputation as a clean, green nation that produces high-quality produce. This is, of course, thanks to the dedication of our small businesses and farmers, however, this positive influence is compounded by China’s own deteriorating perceptions.

China has been rocked by food scandal after food scandal over the last 10 years, and consumers have finally had enough.
Here we are looking at some of the reasons why China is so desperate to import high-quality produce.

China’s local governments, state councils and regulatory committees all treat this issue as a top priority. The problem stems from the implementation and enforcement of said regulations.  In 2015 China revised their regulatory laws and enacted tougher and more stringent penalties for anyone caught breaking them. But, as I’m sure many of you are aware, China is big. Enforcing and assessing the safety of food from every farm, market and processing factory (of which there are over 35,000) is an incredibly difficult task.


One of China’s largest food conspiracies occurred in 2008 when milk producer the Sanlu Group sold baby formula contaminated with melamine. Six babies died, 50,000 were hospitalized and over 300,000 were affected. Worst still, the company was found to have known about the contamination months before it informed authorities.

Similarly, in 2014, it was discovered that many meat products being sold to multinational franchises (such as McDonalds and Starbucks) were being bleached with Rongalite. Rongalite was originally used as in hair dye, however it is understood as a carcinogen in humans.

More recently, a company in Guangzhou has been caught melting down rotting pig carcasses to be used as oil. There are even reports that this is a common occurrence in rural villages. Needless to say, this practice has been condemned.

In fact, in less than 1 year, incidents reported of tampering or contamination found numbered more than half a million.

Fear and distrust

Clearly this is disastrous for the consumer; however, it has had an adverse effect on Chinese producers as a whole. Most Chinese consumers believe that their food regulatory committees are corrupt, with a large portion believing that farmers and politicians keep their own food separate from the majority to avoid contamination.

What’s more, nearly every economic demographic spends money on bottled water, not trusting tap water, despite the government acknowledging that 60% of bottled water is ‘fake’ tap water.

Unfortunately, even with officials calling food safety one of the most important issues in China today, there is a surprising apathy from Chinese elites. Statistics suggest that the inspection pass rate has risen by 30% to 90% over the last 15 years.
This might sound like a positive result, yet it is in part due to lower regulatory standards, allowing for easier passing grades.

Fake news

A natural extension of this not-so-misplaced fear is the propensity for fake news. It seems that just believing a product to be dangerous is as damaging as the dangerous product itself.
An example of this is China’s seaweed industry. Following a number of faked videos claiming that a Chinese company produced ‘plastic’ seaweed, there was an immediate cut in sales. Price of seaweed plummeted by half.

In the same way, there have been erroneous accounts of parasite-infested crayfish and pork. Each of these rumors, spread through Chinese social media, has had a devastating effect on China’s agriculture businesses.

Unfortunately for Chinese companies, there is very little recourse available to sway public perception for the better. Food Industry observer Yun Wuxin acknowledges that since the consumer cannot trust companies media statements, it is safer to simply trust any fake news they hear. “There’s nothing to lose by believing it” (Fake news). There have been so many false claims of safety that food companies suffer from a ‘Boy who cried wolf’ syndrome that threatens to ruin them.

Fundamentally this suspicion of Chinese food products has led to widespread importation from other countries, which Chinese consumers feel are more stringently regulated. Countries like Chile and Australia are looked on with favor, and premiums for safe, healthy food are expected and even welcomed.

For a nation that has declared a wish for self-sufficiency, the systematic negligence of the regulatory systems has crippled those dreams in the foreseeable future. Perception is a dangerous commodity to harm and China’s food industries are learning this the hard way.

By Lachlan Holt

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