The Chinese Redemption: From Food Scandals to Leading Global Food Safety Policy

Melamine in the infant formula, Fipronil Dutch eggs, and mad cow disease: Hong Kong’s and China’s counterattack in food safety crises

Food scandals, involving Hong Kong, China, and their trade partners ASEAN and the European Union (EU), have become frequent. The reactions of regulators are a major concern for market actors. A conference organized by CUHK Law, the Consulate General of Italy in Hong Kong and Macao, and the Marco Polo Society gathered leading expert to address legal issues of food security and food safety, and their implications on trade and investment, and on consumers. Discussions were focused on barriers and bans to food imports, food labelling, international agreements in the food sector, online food sale, and recognition of geographical indications (GIs).

Professor Mercurio (CUHK) discussed Hong Kong labelling laws of pre-packaged food products, arguing that the laws address in a sensible manner the problem of information contained on labels which do not comply with the Hong Kong food safety standards, taking into account the small size of the market and low level of locally produced food products. However, Mercurio found default in the enforcement process - which relies on supermarkets and other retailers to manually delete, from labels, information which contravenes Hong Kong rules - for being inconsistent and perhaps even discriminatory against imported products, which, in turn, may breach obligations under the WTO framework.

China has tackled food scandals with a comprehensive approach. Domestically Chinese authorities have significantly improved and tightened the legal framework. New laws and regulations apply extremely high standards, and the enforcement is catching up. China is also playing an important role in international standard setting within the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a body with 188 Members worldwide that works to harmonize food safety standards. China hosts and leads two important committees: on pesticides residues, and on food additives.

China’s greater attention and interest to better regulate the food sector results in a cooperation with the EU on negotiating an Agreement on GIs. The two parties published, in June 2017, a list of 100 GIs from each side including products such as Yantai apple, Hengxian jasmine tea, Panjin rice, Champagne, Feta and Gorgonzola, which are mutually recognized, with a view to protecting consumers by identifying products as originating in a given place.

Notwithstanding the existence of common grounds and goodwill between China and the EU, troubles persist when dealing with the acceptance of certain European-produced food, i.e. soft cheese and beef, whose import in China might still be problematic. In fact, recently EU traders faced a confusing situation that disrupted trade. Soft cheeses such as Gorgonzola, Camembert, Brie, and Roquefort were banned for several months until last October, even though they already were in the list of protected GIs. Only after the EU delegation provided clarifications, the Chinese authorities lifted the ban. On the other side, the outcome has not been as positive on the import of European beef. Due to the mad cow disease, which first appeared in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, China is particularly cautious about EU beef imports and many EU Member States still face a ban. The issue of beef import is only one of the hot topics in the EU-China trade relations determined by the non-reciprocity of market access. Currently, EU Member States have to individually negotiate access to the Chinese market and this creates unbalances between EU producers.

The success of e-commerce through online platforms might pose threats to the reputation of food goods and affect consumers if not duly regulated. The use of misleading domain names such as paninogiusto.com and paninogiusto.net have had owners who were not associated with the referred company, and might have deceived consumers. Professor Chaisse (CUHK) indicates that abusive registrations of domain names in the food and beverage sector have provoked more than 2,000 disputes. Institutions, such as the Asian Domain Name Dispute Resolution Centre based in Beijing and Hong Kong, help to successfully solve these disputes.

China’s and Hong Kong’s reactions in food safety crises demonstrate a decisive approach in addressing food safety concerns at the regulatory level, both domestically and internationally. However, implementation and enforcement are still not smooth, and may sometimes be even problematic for importers of foreign food. A greater reference to international standards might help to prevent these inconsistencies, while at the same time fostering trade and investments, benefiting food producers and consumers.

For more information, see: www.law.cuhk.edu.hk/FoodandLaw_conf

Ph.D. Candidate, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Law and Research Affiliate at Tufts University, SovereigNET, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Research Assistant, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Law and Ph.D. Candidate at Ghent University