Academic journal article China Perspectives

Food Safety in China: Implications of Accession to the WTO

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Food Safety in China: Implications of Accession to the WTO

Article excerpt

The accession of China to the World Trade Organization (WTO) has had a visible impact on its internal regulatory policy, nowhere more so than in the area of food safety. Not only has WTO membership provided a significant impetus for far-reaching reforms to China's food safety regime, but it has also supplied a "best practices" regulatory model with which these reforms must comply. This model is laid down in the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement).

This contribution aims to examine the effect of WTO accession on food safety in China, with a focus on the potential opportunities and challenges presented by the legal disciplines contained in the WTO's SPS Agreement. In view of growing recognition of the need to assess the "human dimension" of international trade rules, this evaluation of the impact of WTO law on the sensitive issue of food safety merits critical attention.

First, a brief description of food safety concerns related to Chinese products is given to set the context for the discussion.Thereafter, the reforms undertaken by China of its regulatory regime for food safety after its WTO accession are sketched out and the remaining problems highlighted.This review is followed by an examination of the trade implications of these reforms.

The analysis then turns to the SPS Agreement to determine whether it provides sufficient scope for China to pursue its food safety objectives, and where the limits to such regulatory autonomy are set. The objective is to identify the impact that these WTO rules have on China's new food safety regime, in order to establish whether they threaten the progress made by China towards stronger protection against food safety risks, or instead promote a better, more rigorous regulatory model for the promotion of food safety.

Concerns regarding safety of Chinese food products

The safety of food produced in China is currently of widespread concern. Weak and fragmented regulatory controls, !1> poor agricultural and veterinary practices,!2) small-scale, and thus difficult to control, production of food and agricultural products, <3> adulteration in food production processes,*4' and widespread corruption have all contributed to undermining the safety level of food products.This situation has led to a number of food scares in recent years. Examples of these are rife, including the Greenpeace reports on excessive levels of poisonous pesticides on certain vegetables in April 2006; <5> the discovery in 2009 by Wuhan inspectors that blood pudding sold in Chinese markets was composed mainly of com starch, formaldehyde, industrial grade salt, and food colouring; *6> and findings by Chinese officials of illegal drugs in fish farming in December 2006. *7) Other reported examples include Longkou noodles containing lead from Shandong, fake alcohol in Guangdong, and soy sauce made from human hair.*®)

With China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2001, these food-safety concerns have come to the forefront of public and media attention.The lowering of trade barriers to Chinese products following its WTO accession, as mandated by the WTO agreements, has meant that Chinese food exports have increased access to foreign markets, *9> raising fears of the spread of food safety risks to importing countries. *10> In 2008, for instance, dumplings produced in China caused more than 700 people to fall ill in Japan. I11) The most infamous example is that of the infant milk scandal in 2008, where "trusted'' (and thus largely unsupervised) *12> Chinese producers of milk products, primarily the Sanlu company, were found to have adulterated the products with melamine.*13) Melamine is an industrial chemical used to falsely inflate the apparent protein content of products. As Chinese producers had developed the practice of watering down their milk, melamine could be used to boost the apparent protein content to the levels required by regulation. …

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