The Chinese Food Supply &
The Evolution of Product Safety Regimes
MCBC Meeting with Benjamin England of FDAImports
My first memory of eating Chinese food was during the late 1960s, living with my family near Boston. Going to Lee’s Garden, outside of Waltham Mass, was a rare treat: with nine mouths in the family, there was scant extra cash for discretionary “eating out.” I recall the fountain in the foyer, the “exotic” bamboo décor, the tall gaunt waiter and drinking numerous cups of tea until my bladder creaked. (Dad made sure that we all hit the bathroom before the thirty-minute drive back to Hanscom Air Force Base, where he was stationed.)
This was, of course, long before the food supply was globalized and I am sure that Mr. Lee sourced local birds for his kung pao chicken. In those dayswe never worried about the safety of the pu pu, only if there’d be enough leftover fried rice to carry home in those little white boxes. And the rice, back then, was grown in Mississippi Delta paddies, not in the Far East.
Now, the US imported food market is enormous and China provides many varieties of foodstuffs to fill our plates. Aquaculture, alone, is a booming business, China providing 80% of our tilapia and just over half of our cod.. Overall, it is expected that imports of food from China will grow 9% annually through 2020.
We learned this, and many other fascinating aspects of the US-China food trade, from Benjamin England, Esq. of FDAImports.com who addressed a gathering of MCBC hosted by our friends at Columbia Bank in Columbia MD. Mr. England is CEO of FDAImports.com and has been plying the food safety trade for a good number of years, first with the FDA as a microbiologist-turned-lawyer and lately in private practice.
Concerns about food safety have been in the news quite a lot, with both imports and domestic sources cited for various problems with contamination and gut-churning (and deadly) disease-laden food. In response, the Food and Drug Administration has been charged with enacting sweeping regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The legislation, signed in January 2011, addresses both domestic and foreign sources of food.
Mr. England provided an fascinating survey on the history of food safety activities, the current practice and efficacy of US and overseas regulatory authorities and what the future portends, notably how the Chinese are expanding their “brand” and operations in the US to supply our desire for high quality nosh.
The US Food Supply Chain
Determining the origin of Charlie in your tuna sandwich is complicated. “The food supply chain is like a drawing from a spirograph, if you remember that toy,” Mr. England related. Trying to trace the origin, processing, value-add and various transshipment points is a complex task. For example, tuna caught in the South Pacific might be frozen on-board the fishing vessel, further processed on a factory ship and shipped to SE Asia where it is canned and boxed and distributed through wholesalers to the local Safeway. Other food products may be shipped to China, say, for processing (and combined with other ingredients as part of the value-added processing—think fish sticks), packed and then stored in warehouses in Mexico for distribution in North America.
The FDA has recognized that the job of tracking the origins of the food supply is increasingly more difficult and much of the intent of the FSMA is to tighten up supplier verification and registration of food-producing facilities.
In addition, the FDA is expanding its oversight and frequency of inspection of producers and supplier. In addition, under FSMA, the stage is set for developing third-party, accredited inspectors and certifiers. (Third party regimes are common in many other industries for verification and certification).
The Safety of Chinese Food Supply
Mr. England reviewed some well-known examples of problems that have been covered in the media over the last few years. The perception of the safety of Chinese food stems from a certain amount of (perhaps well-deserved) overall bias, further exacerbated by published incidents of melamine doping, the detection of antibiotics in seafood, tainted heparin and toxins in pet treats.
As he pointed out, however, contamination issues are not unique to China. Peanut butter, tainted with salmonella, was the cause of an outbreak of sickness (and a handful of deaths) in 2012. Many food purity problems, here and abroad, involved neglect or tampering during handling or processing, all traced to violations of existing protocols.
Several of these incidents were criminal offenses, in other words, the regulations and requirements were already in place. As Mr. England remarked “You don’t increase banking regulations because there are a rash of bank robberies.”
The FDA in China
In response to concerns with domestic and imported food, there has been a huge effort mounted by the FDA to train inspectors in China (1600 thus far), a laudable effort that has created beneficial side-effects for domestic Chinese consumers.
Historically, the Chinese food regulatory system has had a diverse and decentralized structure and under the auspices of several organizations such as the “State Food and Drug Administration,” “Department of Agriculture,” “General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine,” “Administration for Industry & Commerce,” “Ministry of Health” and the “Food Safety Committee of the State Council.” In classical Chinese bureaucratic style, these organizations have various mixed jurisdictions and sometimes overlapping authority and, as Mr. England pointed out: “It took the FDA a month to determine its Chinese counterpart during the melamine crisis.”
Because of the various crises and demands from US (and other) consumers, the Chinese food regulators and industry has responded by gutting out bad actors and perform “industry self-policing.” (Not overlooked was the message sent by the execution of the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration a few years back.)
The perception of the concern about the safety of Chinese food is not unique to the US. A few years back I was heading to Vietnam. One of my Vietnamese colleagues was traveling with me to visit his newborn baby (his wife wanted to have the baby close to home in Ho Chi Minh City and he was coming to visit and pick them up to return to the US). Thuan had a huge duffel bag with him and I asked him “what’s in the bag, Thuan?” He replied “Food for my baby. My wife doesn’t trust the baby formula in Vietnam; it comes from China.”
Where the Drugs Come From
Not limited to foods, Mr. England’s presentation discussed the impact of Chinese medicine production on US supply. One particular interesting factoid stood out: Eighty percent (80%) of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) used in the US are imported, most of them made in Chinese plants.
Mr. England noted that the medicine imports from China are likely to grow at an annual rate of 13% through 2020, the rate out-pacing the growth in the food sector.
Real, documented (and prosecuted) incidents and ongoing perception problems have forced major changes in the way China regulates food safety. A side benefit to this has been the alignment of domestic protections that has come as a result of the improved practices to appeal to foreign markets. This, along with demands by the 300 million Chinese middle class for safe and high quality products, have forced regulators to adopt what Mr. England called the “FDA Gold Standard,” an import from the US!
The adoption of improved practices underscores China’s goal to produce globally-accepted Chinese brands (this is not unique to the food industry). Ever pragmatic, a trend in the Chinese food industry—in anticipation of the adoption of regulations under the FSMA in part—is for Chinese companies to locate production facilities in the US, close to the market (good idea), and to ease the burden of satisfying rules of origin requirements under the Act.
Another effect on the industry and regulatory environment is the consolidation of Chinese food producers for reasons of economies of scale. This is being achieved through various merger and acquisition activities and joint activities throughout the sector. This is not at all unlike the situation in the United States where major corporations have agglomerated over the past century and, essentially, own the massive channels for production and distribution for much of the food we consume.(Think General Foods, ADM, Nabisco, etc.).
Hence, in China, a side effect of consolidation is that a fewer number of companies in the supply chain makes it easier to regulate.
The arc of development is not unlike other countries, our own included. Remember reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair? One of the most effective ways the US can protect itself is to continue to demonstrate and promote the “Food Safety Gold Standard.”In the end, Mr. England states that the success of the positioning of Chinese branding will affect their markets worldwide. To achieve this, the players recognize that confidence in the safety of the food and drug supply chain is a critical necessity.
President, Maryland China Business Council
(Errors or mis-statements are the responsibility of the author).
For more information on managing food safety programs, imports and FDA regulations for food and medicines, contact:
Benjamin L. England, Esq., Founder and CEO
Benjamin L. England & Associates, LLC
810 Landmark Drive, Suite 126
Glen Burnie, MD. 21061
ph:(410) 220-2800?|fax: (443) 583-1464
Mr. England’s presentation is found here:China Food Safety