Crackdown on food safety long overdue
Published: Nov 21, 2013 05:53 PM Updated: Nov 21, 2013 11:03 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

The media has been reporting that local courts are getting tougher on violators of food safety laws.

A man was sentenced to an eight-year jail term this week for selling phony Moutai liquor to a hotel in Baoshan district in 2010. It took police some time to track the Shanghai man who had fled to Anhui Province where they eventually nabbed him in March this year.

Earlier this week, the Global Times reported that Shanghai courts have sentenced 10 people to prison in six cases since May for breaking food safety laws, citing a senior judge from the Shanghai Higher People's Court.

The six cases show that the city's courts have been handing out harsher sentences to those who violate food safety laws since China's Supreme People's Court and the national prosecutor's office issued a new judicial interpretation of the law in May, said a vice-president of the Shanghai Higher People's Court during a press conference on Monday.

The defendants in the cases were sentenced to an average of 5.63 years in prison, which the court said was a clear increase over past sentences. The average fine in each case was 3.74 million yuan ($613,981).

However, it still remains to be seen whether the tougher punishments will be enough to tackle this long-standing problem.

The statistics certainly reveal the city and the nation's determination to fight against food safety scandals. Although late, we still applaud the tougher enforcement of laws. At the same time, the public hopes that these measures are part of a permanent battle and not just a short-term performance.

Scandal after scandal has left the reputation of China's food safety standards in tatters. Several recent experiences of mine proved to me just how terrible the situation has become.

In August I attended a party in Shanghai organized by the consul general of Singapore. Among the guests was a bank executive from Singapore who brought two homemade cakes to the event. She told us that all the ingredients she used were from her own country, assuring us that it's safe to eat the food she prepared. She added that as long as she has time to make food at home, she only uses ingredients she brings from Singapore, although she has to dine with friends and clients in local restaurants.

As a Chinese home cook, I felt quite awkward when I was invited to try her cake. But at the same time, I couldn't find the words to refute her claims because in fact I also share the exact same concerns and wonder just how low the morality of China's agricultural and catering industries has sunk to.

I discovered on a recent business trip that these concerns have even traveled thousands of miles to Africa. During a dinner, a Chinese manager at China Road and Bridge Corporation's Kenyan branch told us a bitter anecdote. His daughter is attending a local kindergarten in Nairobi. When the kindergarten organized a potluck party for the children, the manager and his wife prepared delicious Chinese food for their daughter to bring, hoping that the local kids could sample some authentic Chinese fare. But to their great surprise, their little girl returned home heartbroken. She said her Kenyan classmates wouldn't taste the food she brought because their parents had told them that Chinese food is poisonous.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the global reputation of China's food quality standards came during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when media reported that several famous foreign athletes opted to eat hamburgers at international fast food chains, attempting to avoid unsafe Chinese food.

Chinese cuisine is extremely popular around the world, but it will fall out of favor if Chinese produce continues to be notoriously unsafe.

Reputations can be ruined overnight but it takes a long time and considerable effort to build a brand and win loyal consumers. We have to admit and address the fact that the general perception of Chinese produce couldn't be worse.

If Chinese-produced food becomes the first batch of products so distrusted by foreign countries that they are boycotted, then other products and industries may well follow. I don't think we can afford the cost of that situation.

As consumers here in China, we need to demand higher standards from the industry.

When tempted by the low prices of street vendors, we should bear in mind that you get what you pay for and you are what you eat. While you might save a few yuan on unsanitary food, your body will eventually pay the price.

Unfortunately, countless numbers of people have already been harmed after ingesting tainted produce in China. Although the government has recognized the problem for years, the latest crackdown on food safety violators is long overdue. Regulators and courts must demonstrate a resolute determination to hold to account the unscrupulous producers who have poisoned the nation's food supply.

Then one day, Chinese food will be favored by African families; expats in China will feel comfortable cooking with local ingredients; and foreign visitors can enjoy the local food free from worry.

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.