"We need more risk communication!"

Beginning of November the “China International Food Safety & Quality Conference + Expo 2012” took place in Shanghai. International and Chinese experts from academia, industry and government came together to exchange latest research results and discuss on best practice experiences with a focus on public policy and risk communication in food safety management.

Transient

Overall all the speakers agreed that food safety is a global problem, which needs commitment from all the involved parties, from the start to the end of the food value chain. It is not only about the responsibility to communicate but also to educate the bottom of the pyramid, such as for example the small farmers at the beginning of the value chain.

China is very hard working on catching up with international standards. At the moment there are too many different regulations in the provinces and too many local standards. In order to improve food safety, there is a strong need of national standardization,  to have a better punishment system, and furthermore to have a strong monitoring system to prevent food hazards and stop any incidents already before they reach the costumers. At the moment Shanghai is one of the leading cities in implementing new international regulations.

There is not enough risk communication, we need to communicate much better
— Xumei Liu, Professor at Chinese National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment

The Codex Alimentarius CAC and the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) are very important tools to standardize and improve food safety globally. More and more governments adapt their regulations accordingly, which helps improving transparency.

Everyone’s responsibility

As Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods, U.S. Food & Drug Administration said:” It is crucial to work with all stakeholders and share all information!”. To improve food safety and consumer confidence, in his opinion it needs:

  • Industry commitment and responsibility: the actions of all are related. Detect problem early and act swiftly, this can help to keep confidence
  • Comprehensive systems: everyone has responsibility
  • Credible and effectual government oversight: regulations should not be a replacement. Government is essential for international collaboration and building scientific foundations.
  • Collaborations and partnerships: distinct but comprehensive roles. Government Inspections are most effective when companies collaborate. Government invest in data collection, with private sector input, this is even more effective. The whole food industry  benefits when governments,  industry and other private stakeholders work together.
  • Transparency in industry and government: in China work is needed to modernize system. Transparency is starting point for real improvement.  Do work effectively through transparency. Use internet to share knowledge with consumers and industry! Engage directly with all players.
Food hazard knows no borders and there must be a shared responsibility, from farm to table, a global continuum!
— Yves Rey, Chairman global Food Safety Initiative, Corporate General Manager Danone Group France

Testing Methods

Douglas Marshall, Chief Scientific Officer, Eurofins Microbiology Laboratories, gave some insights on the biological monitoring possibilities. He stressed  that for every sector, every part of the food value chain experts are needed. He sees several trends in the testing world:

  • There new detection platforms and methods available for everyone
  • Lack of retailer interest  and well-trained  technicians in the industry and academic community developing good bench-top molecular biologists with little practical understanding of food processing
  • Too many labs performing tests they know little about and too many conflicts of interest with internal labs and some government-sponsored labs.

swissnex China is currently working on the workshop program on food safety in the framework of the conference “From Crisis Management to Risk Governance” taking place in Beijing from January 9-11, 2013. Find the conference program here

Food Fact Finding Mission

Discussion in cosy Swiss environment at Chalet Suisse

Discussion in cosy Swiss environment at Chalet Suisse

On November 14 we welcomed a delegation from the Swiss food indutry, such as the cheese, chocolate, wine and logistics industry. The group came in the framework of the OSEC Food Fact Finding mission, co-organised by SwissBusinessHub and Peach International. The delegation participants were all keen to learn more about the food industry and food safety in China. We organised an evening discussion and invited several Shanghai based Swiss and Chinese experts from business and academia, who could shared their experience and knowledge on this topic. The delegation highly appreciated the knowledge exchange and network opportunity. Besides various experts from different industries, we were also happy to have several alumni from the famous Swiss Ecole Hotelière Lausanne, who are all very successfully active in the hospitality sector in China. Our host of the evening was one of them Philippe Huser, owner of the Swiss Chalet. While he offered us a warm welcome in a Swiss sourrounding, he also shared the experience on food safety in China.

Chinese citizen find their own solutions

Increasing food safety scares during the last decade made the topic of food safety a major challenge for China’s future development. The Chinese government steadily enforced research and regulations to address the problem while also the raising awareness of Chinese consumers puts more pressure on the government to address the problem. The long supply chain with many small and medium businesses involved, make the traceability of products and the control on the implementation of regulations very difficult. Although China is one of the biggest exporter of agricultural products and food ingredients, the farm scale in China is smaller compared to farms in the western world. Chinese farmers typically farm on plots of one to two noncontiguous acres, which makes it difficult to standardize and monitor production practices. This small scale farming leads to a fragmented marketing system dominated by millions of small farms handling small volumes with few or no documentation to trace products. As the government is trying to enforce regulations and control mechanism more than 10 different departments are involved in this process which might cause unclear responsibilities. China faces a big challenge in adapting its standards to the international levels,  the value chain with millions of involved parties in a huge domestic market. 

Iphone application "China Survival Guide"

Iphone application "China Survival Guide"

While these are just a few problems causing insecurity about food safety, some citizens did not want to wait until the situation has improved and took the initiative by developing different tools to stay informed about food scares. To name only two such examples the internet security firm Kingsoft launched the “China Survival Guide”, an iPhone app that tracks food scandals across China. According to the newspaper China Daily the app was downloaded more than 200,000 times in its first week. An other service offers a website developed by students from Shanghai Fudan University, through which you can follow the latest news reports all over China: http://www.zccw.info/

Overview map on food safety incidents www.zccw.info

Overview map on food safety incidents www.zccw.info

The food industry in China is confronted with different challenges and it is interesting to see how they developed different strategies to fight increasing insecurity within the value chain.  As an example Nestle developed a dairy farming system  to  keep high quality levels by very close contact with the farmers and also educating them to Swiss standard levels. We have also been in contact with Jiaotong University and its Bor S. Luh Food Safety Research Center. Ongoing research projects are for example the molecular detection methods for food-based pathogens and applied research in microbiological food safety and heterotrophic metabolism of Chlorella. Other universities like Zhejiang University of Science& Technology in Hangzhou to name only two of many institutes working intensively in this field as well.

While Switzerland has established itself on a very high level  in regards of regulations and food safety standards, research is being continued, as for example at the ETH Zurich institute for Food Biotechnology or the School of Life Science at the University of Applied Sciences or Zurich to name only a few. The platform Swiss Food Research is a very good instrument to stay informed and also connect to different industries and academia involved in food science.

We are currently working on a conference/workshop on food safety and innovation in 2013. If you are interested in this topic and want to discuss  with us or get involved , do not hesitate to contact viviane.gut@swissnexchina.org