6 August 2012

It’s been a tough few weeks for food safety in China.  Obviously Fonterra hasn’t helped.   Well, from reports that the Chinese media is getting ‘stuck into’ New Zealand, perhaps Fonterra is helping draw attention away from China’s home grown problems.

In late July  Xinhua reported that a Kunming factory was using dirty ditch water to make vermicelli.   At the same time China TV reported that ice served at a Beijing KFC outlet had 13 times more bacteria than water for its toilets. And ironically last week just ahead of the Fonterra announcement, the New York Times reported on widespread smuggling of baby formula by parents who distrust the quality of Chinese milk. Bad news if smugglers trafficked a contaminated Fonterra product.

A US reaction is the announcement of stricter regulations for imported foods.  The FDA will require all imports to meet standards required in domestic production. To prevent contamination, food importers will have to document factory conditions, conduct audits of production facilities, and subject themselves to FDA inspections. But Fonterra already matches those expectations.

China sets lower food standards than in most countries selling into that market. Safety standards list only 62 chemical pollutants as harmful — compared with 4,000 in the United States and 10,000 in Japan.

Chinese consumers are accustomed to unsafe food – which of course has been a cause of the burgeoning smuggling of infant milk formula.  The current criticism of New Zealand – perhaps because of its reputation for the purity of its environment and food – seems almost a rationalisation of China’s problems – whether contaminated milk, rat meat being sold as lamb or contaminated pigs being dumped into the Huangpu River.

Unsurprisingly a 2012 Pew survey found that 41% of respondents in China were deeply concerned about food safety – up from 12% in 2008.  However 50% said they were more concerned about corrupt officials.

Fonterra’s failure may be a godsend to those officials.  Can a country that threatens the health of China’s infants really be clean, green and integrity-rich?