Stanley's blog

The potential ramifications of the Chinese food safety scandal over melamine contaminated milk products are deeply worrying, because they touch upon trust between the Chinese authorities and the European Union and third countries, as well as upon external perceptions of the China-specific characteristics of the national economy.

That developing countries have such problems is understandable and accepted in the West, where mad cow is an ever present point of reference on both sides of the Atlantic. Observers draw no general inference from a crisis, provided that the response is prompt, tighter systems are introduced, there is transparency and maximum cooperation with other countries. Whiffs of corruption are very damaging.

The impression in the West is that the Ministry of Health was too slow to react while boasting the contrary. Whether or not the Ministry should have reacted on the concern expressed by the Gansu Provincial government, whether or not it was ‘hushed up’ during the Olympics cannot be proven outside China, but the impression of failing to act promptly and even cover up remains. It does, however, appear that insufficient controls were introduced last year and that these were introduced too slowly. Substantially improved Chinese systems are critically important.

It is also believed in the West that the CCP Propaganda Department clamped down on media investigation of the scandal. There appears to have been minimal local press coverage.

There can be far-reaching consequences for the acceptance of Chinese products – in general – in the West unless three lessons are quickly learned:

1. The authorities can never act too quickly on health and safety issues.: The challenge is two-fold. First, to use the current redrafting of the food safety law to make it obligatory for operators – state owned enterprises, private sector operators and joint ventures – to market only products with a reasonable assurance of safety, and to notify immediately any safety problems (two key European innovations post mad cow). Second, to develop the right standard operating procedures for provincial agencies, including again prompt notification of all safety incidents.

2. Attempts at cover up, by government or companies, usually fail and aggravate the problem. Transparency is a better course.

3. The media and indeed NGOs can be effective watchdogs in the area of health and safety. So could an independent food risk assessor, like the European Food Safety Authority.

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