AmCham's food safety conference instructive

On May 30, the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) held its annual „China Food Safety and Sustainability Conference“ in Shanghai. Mostly attended by around 100 business representatives and other practitioners, its focus lay on solutions for the food safety and sustainability challenges China faces.

The conference showcased, that on all sides - government, society, and business – efforts are made to tackle the problems. In his open and frank keynote, Dr. Chen Jun Shi from the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment, explained the recent re-organization of the Chinese food safety system. In his view the new setup is a change for the better as it increases the effectiveness of the government system. However, he added, it needs furthers improvements and therefore he predicts it to be only temporary solution. NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are running projects to strengthen China's sustainability. They represent the growing influence of societal actors in China. A number of presentations demonstrated the contribution of private businesses to food safety. For companies, it simply is a business case, it became clear. Strict food safety standards are necessary in order to sustain reputation and business. Consequently, most apply standards higher than the Chinese. Although it was not a topic of itself during the conference, it became clear that the collaboration and coordination of all these actors involved in improving food safety remains a big question.

The conference also was a reminder how complex the issue of food safety is. In some instances it is linked to cultural aspects. For example, market research showed that China developed its own strain of food products that incorporate the approaches of traditional Chinese medicine. Another aspect was the kind of food risk. When Scott Minoie presented the sophisticated food safety measures in Element Fresh's internal production chain, he was instantly asked whether he merely deals with microbiological risks or also with risk associated with others substances in food (which he does). What is more, at several points of the conference, the role of media and unnecessary fearful population was raised. However, these issues of risk communication were only partially if at all addressed. It rather became clear, that a one day conference cannot fully grasp all aspects linked to food safety. There is a danger in raising but not really addressing issues. Risk communication is a good example. Media should report in a more objective manner and people just need to receive the correct information and figures about the real scope of a food safety problem, it was more then once proclaimed during the conference. However, risk communication research has long ago revealed that both will not work. Finally, bringing sustainability and food safety together in a conference turned out to be a challenge. The examples of water management were well chosen to display the connection between both areas. However, due to the limited time it was impossible to carve out the complex relationship between sustainability and food safety. Again this can be misleading, as it covered the fact that both can actually be contradictory.

As swissnex will continue to develop projects on the issue of food safety, the AmCham conference was very valuable. The presentations itself were very instructive and detailed. What is more, the conference was attended by many experts and relevant persons in this field.

Reported by Kai Kottenstede, advisor on food safety, friend of swissnex China.