Meeting China’s Food Safety Challenge

In this Paulson Policy Memorandum, John Kojiro Yasuda of Indiana University begins by noting that China has struggled to develop a national food safety regime that can effectively integrate diverse interests within a common framework of governance. His extensive interviews with Chinese food safety experts reveal a system in disarray.

Despite concerted state efforts to fix it, microbiological hazards remain unchecked, supply chain management is weak, and policies are uncoordinated across disparate levels of the Chinese government. He cites survey data suggesting that food safety now represents one of the top three governance concerns of China’s population, along with inequality and corruption.

Yasuda pointedly asks why China’s food safety system is failing and, indeed, becoming worse. His answer, premised on his extensive field research, is that China’s safety-related food failures are, among other things, a result of the challenges of governing a system of such massive scale. In large-scale systems, such as China’s, Yasuda says, regulators must harmonize local best practices with national standards, coordinate actors in diverse global supply chains, and navigate jurisdictional complexity within a far-flung bureaucracy. Chinese regulators must routinely make trade-offs. And while their choices have solved some problems, they have invariably created new ones in the bargain.

Yasuda contends that the Chinese state’s overreliance on straightforward centralization or decentralization (rather than the more complex federal approach seen in other countries) to address regulatory crises exacerbates these difficult trade-offs. China faces a situation where its system must simultaneously provide for exacting standardization (which, in turn, requires high levels of centralization) while also accommodating the extensive local diversity of food production (which requires high levels of decentralization).

Thus China’s food safety problem portends a new dynamic in central–local relations: neither centralization nor decentralization is sufficient to address the food safety problem. What China needs, he concludes, is a new multi-level division of labor between Beijing and local governments to assure more effective and efficient regulatory oversight.

Yasuda’s memo first examines the factors that are fueling China’s food safety crisis. It then turns to each of the four dominant food safety policies the state has employed, offering a critical view of the recent history of implementation and effectiveness. Finally, it offers some policy recommendations for China to improve its regulatory system for food safety.

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