I recently wrote an article concerning a new directive from the Chinese judicial system for judges to hand down harsher indictments for food safety violators, including death penalties for the most grievous. That article can be viewed here.
The issue at stake is a raft of recent Chinese food scares, namely a 2008 melamine-tainted milk calumny, and instances of economically-motivated adulteration of exported ingredients.
More recently, I spoke to Warren Majerus, an industry auditor specializing in China and head of quality assurance at Pharmore Ingredients, who confirmed my suspicions that harsher penalties are unlikely to ameliorate consumer angst over China-sourced ingredients.
Imported ingredients—like chondroitin sulfate, an import Majerus sees often—are already tested for efficacy upon arrival in the United States, but adulterers have gotten more savvy. “They adulterate ingredients such that they pass normal potency tests that we employ in the United States,” he says. “It’s forcing us to do additional testing.”
Punishing criminals more harshly after the fact won’t keep U.S. companies from continuing to employ additional tests, though. “It’s not going to help the United States,” Majerus says. “Manufacturers over here already know that we have to heavily test materials coming from China, just because of the existing level of confidence we have in those sources.”
One reasonable solution to the issue of Chinese ingredient reliability, Majerus suggests, would be independent, third-party testing laboratories operating in China. “But then the issue with that is if you test just one drum, it’s not necessarily representative of the other 100,” he says. “There are a few labs that go in and put stickers on tested drums, so that they can’t be switched out later. That’s slow and expensive, but it’s one way to enhance credibility.”
Fomenting change in China can be slow for outsides, but it’s important for industry to voice its concerns, as we’re not about to stop sourcing raw materials from the country.
“I’ve had people request ingredients from anywhere but China,” Majerus says. “The problem is that, over here, the Chinese suppliers have run our raw material industry out of business. Say vitamin B1, B2, B12, those are not made here because we can’t compete.”
One wrinkle that adds a bit of complexity to the issue is China’s rising manufacturing costs, as they begin to lose bids to nearby developing countries.
“China’s no longer insulated from a manufacturing perspective,” says Majerus. “Their costs are going up, and they’re losing manufacturing to other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. And of course, along with that could come even lower quality.”
The ball is in China’s court to improve its credibility or suffer from consumer backlash. But the issue is too big and too complex to be solved by simply upping punishments.