Food Safety Shanghai Tips

Food Safety Shanghai is an important issue for expats.

When I talk about food safety in China, I don't want to be overly cynical. I live here and I eat here and with the proficiency of Chinese chefs there is a lot I can forgive.

Based on the hype surrounding Chinese food safety I should either be dead, have grown an extra arm or at the very least have been hospitalized a few times.

I eat in local restaurants and purchase from street vendors (although I don't recommend this to China expats). I shop in local markets and cook using produce sourced from local farms. I'm still alive and I'm rarely ever sick (touch wood).

That said, I'm not a parent of a baby that drank melamine tainted infant formula, I've personally never eaten clenbuterol tainted pork, and to my knowledge never eaten rat, mink or fox or been the victim of the regular scandals that plague China's food industry.

Food Safety Shanghai

Food Safety Shanghai: Hype or Reality?

I have, however an extensive background in food safety and in particular food safety in China. I currently work at a food safety consulting company in China, helping foreign companies understand the complex web of Chinese food safety regulations and ultimately gain access to China's food market.

My academic background in biochemistry, molecular nutrition and food technology and my extensive experience analyzing and reviewing Chinese food, agrochemical and chemical regulations probably makes me more keenly aware than most of the issues facing China's food supply Chain.

So if you are concerned about food safety Shanghai I am well qualified to offer some tips to help you stay safe while here.

To start off I would like to offer some of my knowledge of China's food safety system, regulations and recent developments. 

China's Rich Food Culture

It's a shame that China's food industry has become globally synonymous with scandal. Historically the Chinese have a deeply entrenched cultural ethos that prioritizes diet and nutritional status as the key predicator of future and current health.

Underpinning an overall cultural appreciation for the prophylactic and therapeutic properties of foods is the extraordinarily complex system of traditional Chinese medicine, which is based on accumulated anecdotal evidence, clinical observations and millennia of practice.

We also have to give the Chinese a lot of credit for feeding 20 percent of the world's population using just nine percent of earth's arable land.

However, with so many food safety scandals occurring in China, as an expat it is hard to ignore food safety in Shanghai. Keeping things positive at the start, I'd like to begin my presentation by outlining the most important changes that have affected China food safety in recent years.

Major Regulatory Reforms

The Chinese government has certainly been actively responding and tackling the many food safety issues here. 

On March 10th, 2013, during the 12th National People's Congress, state councilor Ma Kai detailed major reform of China's health and food safety institutions.

The former State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) became China's CFDA (China Food and Drug Administration) and China's former Ministry of Health was dissolved and replaced by the China National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC ).

Under the change, the CFDA became China's chief food safety administrative bureau with greater regulatory responsibilities and powers; finally giving China's food safety watchdog the bite it previously lacked.

The move will help to close the regulatory loop holes which have plagued China's food industry, thereby creating a regulatory agency with hallmarks similar to that of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Europe's Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Formation of CFDA

China Food and Drug Administration

Imported vs. Domestic Foods

With the key links in China's food supply chain defined, we can further divide China's food supply Chain into imported foods and domestically produced foods.

These supply chains are vastly different. A useful analogy to compare the complexity of the domestic supply chain (figure 1) to the relative simplicity of the import supply chain (figure 2) can be illustrated like this.

Figure 1: China's Domestic Food Supply Chain

Food Safety China Supply Chain

Imagine the import supply chain as a simple linear chain, and the domestic supply chain as a chain link fence with multiple directions and mutually dependent interactions.

From just a quick comparison of the two, we can see that imported foods in China have an inherently more controllable supply chain, with clearly designated entry points that lends itself to full regulatory oversight.

Figure 2: China's Imported Food Supply Chain

China's Imported Food Supply Chain

The government has earmarked imported foods for increased regulatory supervision and enforcement, not as a means to increase technical barriers to trade, but rather to guarantee at least one safe food supply chain for Chinese consumers.

On the other side, lack of adequate supervision of the domestic food supply chain in China has left this key link open to numerous food safety issues, particularly exploitation by unethical food criminals.

New Food Safety Law in China

The drafting of China's new food safety law has had significant impact on a number of sectors of the food industry. This new China Food Safety law went into effect on October 1st, 2015.

China Food Safety Issues

In this section, I will address the elephant in the room, the serious and unavoidable food safety scandals that continue to mar the reputation of China's food industry.

The primary issues facing China's food supply chain include:

  1. Food Crime and pricing pressure (Deliberate adulteration or sale of toxic or contaminated foods)
  2. Environmental problems (soil, water, air pollution)
  3. Legislative and Regulatory Issues (Supervision and enforcement)
  4. Food Safety Standards and Capacity building (GMP production, training and education etc.) 

As I have already outlined most of the regulatory and food safety standards issues above, in this section I will primarily focus on food crimes and environmental issues.

Food Crimes

Food Crime and Pricing Pressures: China's Cyclical Food Safety Scandals

Chinese food industry scandals are hallmarked by an accompanying media firestorm, and usually a knee jerk government response resulting in legislative and regulatory changes.

With history repeating itself cyclically, you could be forgiven for believing that these reforms were nothing more than tokenistic policies, designed to paper over the gaping cracks in China's food industry legislative and supervisory framework.

Although in the wake of China's most publicized food scandal, namely the Sanlu infant milk formula melamine scandal, two chief culprits were sentenced to death, China food safety violation penalties have proven to be a weak deterrent against offenders.

With the financial stakes set so high and pricing pressure so extreme (everyone demanding the cheapest prices), food adulteration, counterfeiting, falsifying labels, false health claims etc. have continued to proliferate despite concerted legislative reforms.

Lucrative financial returns, combined with patchy domestic regulatory supervision, are breeding grounds for unethical practices, and until China implements full supervision throughout the supply chain, we can expect scandals to continue.

National Traceability System Needed

One critical system that China needs to develop in order to better fight food crime is a comprehensive national Traceability system.

Traceability, also known as the "farm to fork", or "from farmland to table", means the ability to track any food, feed, food-producing animal or substance that will be used for consumption, through all stages of production, processing and distribution.

Small scale traceability systems that allow food to be tracked throughout the entire supply chain from source to distributor all the way down to final consumers are being implemented in China.

However, mandatory use of these systems is still not a reality, and with the exception of the above mentioned provisions in China's new food safety law, there is unlikely to be widespread implementation of government-accredited traceability systems.

China's food industry has been extremely resistant to such initiatives, as evidenced by China AQSIQs attempt to pass a law requiring the PIATS (Product Identification, Authentication and Tracking System), a bar-coding system, to be used for the entire food industry.

Due to heavy lobbying against this law, it was never ratified and ended up in the bin. The PIATS system was championed by the AQSIQ, however, as shown, since last year it is the CFDA that is calling the shots with regard to domestic food traceability.

At the moment, the only national government traceability system being developed is currently in the early pilot stage, running on an internally developed system under the auspices of China's MIIT (Ministry of Industry and Information Technology).

Shanghai has been developing its own local traceability systems for certain food products since 2008, and says it will implement a comprehensive system covering 90 percent of the city's produce by 2015.

The future integrity of Chinese food safety will be achieved only when a country-wide open access traceability system exists, where individual consumers can guarantee the authenticity of the products circulating on the market.

Environmental Issues: As You Sow, so Shall You Reap

In terms of environmental issues, particularly soil quality issues, China is reaping the rewards of the rapid and largely unregulated expansion of many seriously polluting industries from the 80s onwards.

If we consider the food supply chain as a pyramid, the bottom foundation block would be soil. Good quality soil and well managed crop cultivation grow healthy nutrient dense crops, with healthy immune systems, much better equipped to deal with pests and disease.

Pollution and unsound farming practices lead to problems with soil health, requiring higher agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides.

Unsustainable chemical farming methods, heavy metals and agricultural pollutants, such as pesticides and fertilizers, have over the recent decades severely damaged China's most important agricultural requirement, namely its soil.

In a report issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land and Resources, it was revealed that the soil covering almost 20 percent of China's arable land has pollutant levels exceeding national standards.

"Pollutants included 13 types of inorganic pollutants, mainly heavy metals, and three types of organic pollutants. All may affect the production and quality of crops and are hazardous to human health."

In regard to China water quality, a report released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in June 2013 revealed that "The quality of underground water in 57.3 percent of the 4,929 monitoring points in 198 cities around the country is 'relatively poor' or 'extremely poor'. In addition, the resources in about 30 percent of water monitoring points in major rivers was of poor quality."

Finally, coming to air pollution in China, in another study by He Dongxian, an associate professor at China Agricultural University College of Water Resources and Civil Engineering, it was shown that air pollution in China causes crops to grow slower and thus require more inputs to retain normal growth.

Making Informed Food Choices as an Expat in China

So now I would like to discuss how we as China expats can apply regulatory knowledge to make safer food and eating choices in China.

While there are many obvious smart choices regarding microbiological food safety, such as not eating in places that look overtly dirty, or employ what obviously appear like questionable food safety standards (choose restaurants with a neutral or happy face on their Food Safety Inspection Notification signs), I would like to address some of the more interesting options available to expats.

1. Buy imported foods in China (Jìnkǒu shípǐn 进口食品)
Sounds a little biased, right? However, all food imported through legal channels in China is subjected to China's strictest regulatory supervision.
Imported products must undergo testing and inspection at port which includes random sampling of batches, label review etc. Imported foods are all assessed using Chinese national standards from an ingredient, safety, and labeling perspective using prescribed testing criteria.
Non-compliant imported goods are returned or destroyed at port by China's CIQ. Every month the Chinese customs and quarantine bureau (CIQ) seize thousands of dollars' worth of imported products.
In the coming months the stakes will get even higher for importers with the implementation of a publically available CIQ blacklist of incompliant importers and products in addition to blacklisting countries that are serial offenders.
Several violations will result in mandatory testing for all products every time they arrive at port. As such, buying imported food from safe channels is normally a safe choice for expats in China.

2. Green Foods (Lǜsè shípǐn 绿色食品)
If you have shopped in China, chances are you may have seen the Green-food logo.
Basically the Green-food logo is to attest that the food has been produced by manufacturers that have undertaken the Green-food certification program.
Green-Foods have much stricter pesticide maximum residue limits and tighter regulations on the categories of pesticides that can be used.
Green-Food certification requires actual pesticide testing.

These logos are found on 'safer' foods in China. Green Foods
These logos are found on 'safer' foods in China. Organic Foods

3. Organic Food (Yǒujī shípǐn 有机食品)
I have my reservations about Organic food in China. However, in terms of fresh vegetables, it's probably the lesser of two evils.
Like Green-Foods, labeling and marketing food as 'Organic' requires certification through a supposedly rigorous process. Strict regulations regarding the type of agricultural inputs permitted for use in organic products are part of the organic certification process.
Farms which produce and market organic products in China must 'clean' their soil for three years prior to being able to market organic products, and are supposedly inspected strictly and frequently in order to obtain and maintain their organic licenses.

4. 'Safe Foods' (Wú gōnghài shípǐn 无公害食品)
A third category of quality standards for agricultural produce in China, especially fruits and vegetables, which is variously translated as ‘Pollution-free' or ‘Non-harm' or 'Safe Foods' is the least vigorously supervised category of food and therefore not highly recommended, but is still better than non-certified foods.

These logos are found on 'safer' foods in China. Safe Foods
These logos are found on 'safer' foods in China. Food Safety Testing logo

5. Health Foods (Bǎojiàn shípǐn 保健食品)
All health food supplements legally registered in China carry the "Blue-hat" registration mark. This is to certify that the product has undergone rigorous assessment from both a safety and scientific aspect.
Although supplements in China may from an efficacy standpoint be inferior to those purchased in other countries, by purchasing health food substances baring the blue-hat registration we can at least be certain they are safe for consumption and free from adulteration (provided they are not counterfeit).

6. Private sector Testing
Numerous agencies are investing in privately funded traceability programs here in China. Many companies specializing in implementing enterprise based traceability programs complete with publically accessible online query interfaces are currently targeting China's markets.

Foreign grocery stores such as Metro and Carrefour have developed their own strict traceability systems.

About The Author

Paul O'Brien is an Irish expat working as a food regulatory analyst and head editor for Chemlinked. https://food.chemlinked.com/

Chemlinked is a regulatory information and practical compliance service provider based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province that brings Chinese regulatory affairs to a global audience, in addition to a host of regulatory affair services and tools in multiple languages including English, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.

Paul has a scientific background specializing in genetics and food science. He has lived in China for three years.

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