Earlier this month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sought the help and assistance of Chinese food regulators as the U.S. prepares to implement the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act. The law is aimed at stemming the continued rise in food contamination incidents across the U.S., and among increased inspection and enforcement initiatives, also includes the realization that food safety measures must be incorporated across the entire food supply chain. While the effort is laudable, the reality and scope of control efforts required from both nations remains a rather open question.

An article published in the Wall Street Journal (paid subscription required or free metered view) highlights the growing presence of China’s producers within U.S. food products, with China now representing a significant presence as an exporter of food products. China’s food and agricultural exports more than doubled in 2010, with major exports including processed vegetables and fruit juices.  We were surprised to read that 72 percent of U.S. apple juice imports originate from China.

According to the WSJ, the FDA currently shares inspection information with regulators in Europe and Australia and now hopes to include China. The agency’s current outreach is an effort to secure accreditation of private-sector inspectors and to create a documentation system for China’s suppliers.

Supply Chain Matters has featured multiple commentaries regarding the alarming increases in both food safety and pharmaceutical product contamination and we openly supported the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act. But the reality remains that China has its own internal challenges regarding the safety of food products and food ingredients.

To gain a current perspective, we came acrossa recent Voice of America News article which indicates that newspapers across China continue to be filled with disturbing stories of egregious food safety violations. A Chinese university student in Shanghai, who was so fed up with the stream of contamination scandals, started a website that collects and summarizes reports of food safety issues.  Thus far, the web site has documented more than 2000 incidents from media sources, and while violations decreased from 2008 to 2010, the trend is rising again in 2011. A callout panel notes some rather disturbing examples, including pork tainted with bacteria that causes the meat to emit blue light, and vinegar tainted with anti-freeze. China’s population continues to be concerned, and China’s political leaders are stepping-up efforts for increased inspection and enforcement of food safety laws.  The question, however, remains the scope and scale of the effort.

While the efforts of both the FDA and China’s regulators to increase cooperation in inspecting food products are encouraging, it does not take away from the reality that food producers across all tiers , especially those involving export and import, have to insure that proper inspectional and process control safeguards are in-place. Government resources are limited, and the scope of the effort requires both governmental and private industry initiatives. The law itself requires that the riskiest U.S. facilities would have to be inspected every three years. One wonders aloud how the on-site inspectional requirement would be interpreted among China’s regulators.  The law also calls for U.S. food producers to have detailed food safety plans encompassing all stages of food chain production.  This provision alone should be the area of emphasis and concern for U.S. food producers, and not the reliance that government regulators will catch major problems.

Bob Ferrari