Tainted reputation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2007, 12:00am

The reports of tainted Chinese ingredients in food and drugs killing people and pets present Beijing with a golden opportunity which it should grasp with open arms. As then premier Zhu Rongji explained, China needed to join the World Trade Organisation because the government alone needed the power of international rules to put its house in order. Similarly, the country should now take advantage of international indignation to get rid of any domestic obstacles to building a strong monitoring environment.

Just how weak its institutions are is reflected in the fact that the then-director of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu , was dismissed in 2005 and is now charged with accepting bribes to approve untested medicine.

Currently, it seems, it is relatively easy to circumvent China's regulatory system. Beijing said the shipment of contaminated wheat gluten sent to the United States by Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development was declared a 'non-food product' and hence was not subject to mandatory inspection. Similarly, China's Foreign Ministry explained that the company that sold diethylene glycol, which was used in drugs that killed dozens of people in Panama, 'is not an enterprise for medicine production but is licensed to make chemical-grade material'.

It would appear that inspectors are stumped when companies cut corners and breach rules. But it is in precisely those situations that strong monitoring is required. If everyone is law abiding, and does as they are told, then there would be no need for a strong regulatory regime.

Food safety is so poor that even the head of the food and drug administration in Zhuhai reportedly brings his own cooking oil to restaurants in other cities because it is known some places use cooking oil of dubious origin.

There is a danger that China's hard-won reputation for producing inexpensive but high-quality goods may be permanently damaged by the adverse publicity.

The problem extends well beyond food and drugs. Wal-Mart Stores recently announced a recall of baby bibs made in China after some tested positive for high levels of lead. This is publicity that China does not need. After all, a reputation for shoddy products can be overcome but a status for less-than-rigorous supervision over the production of food and drugs will scare people off everything made in China. Already, there are calls in the US for the exclusion of any and all Chinese ingredients in whatever is intended for consumption. But, China is now so integrated into the global economy and is such a major supplier, that it is virtually impossible to sift out all ingredients that originated in the country.

Interestingly, China's State Council has belatedly unveiled a food and drug safety plan for the period from last year to 2010. Apparently, the five-year plan had been in effect for well over a year, but Beijing did not disclose this until the furore over poisonous food arose. It is possible that if the plan had been publicised, it could have deterred producers of fraudulent food and drugs.

Beijing's culture of secrecy is an obstacle to ensuring the safety of food and drugs. The media has apparently been told not to publicise the controversy, which is on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

This is the exact opposite of what is needed. Beijing must give journalists full rein to sniff out and report such stories. Releasing an army of journalists around the country is a lot cheaper than hiring hundreds of thousands of inspectors - and twice as effective. However, the party is evidently too concerned about protecting senior officials and continues to keep the press on a short leash.

China's credibility is at an all-time low. Now is the time for dramatic action to win international support. Unleashing the local media, even in a limited context, would make an impact. It may well save lives, not only overseas but in China, as well.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator