Tit for Tat: China Bans Tainted Meat Products from the US
Demonstrating that two can play the same game, China went on offense this week, in defense of the faulty goods that have ended up in the U.S. recently. China Daily reported that the country has suspended meat products from seven U.S. companies, including Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat processor. China’s General Administration of Quality, Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) claimed that the products in question contained salmonella, feed additives and veterinary drugs.
The action taken by China against the U.S. firms mirrors an action taken by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in late June when it banned three types of fish raised on Chinese fish farms. The ban continues in effect until the suppliers prove that the fish do not contain harmful contaminants. The move by the FDA sparked an angry reaction from Li Changjiang, the head of AQSIQ, who said that China also detects many substandard products from the U.S. Barely a month later, it seems, he proved his point by taking the action against the U.S. firms.
In a related article, China Daily reported that Mr. Li also blasted certain foreign media for inciting fears over Chinese products. By wantonly reporting on “so-called unsafe Chinese products,” he said they were turning “white to black.” While admitting problems with certain Chinese companies, Mr. Li argued that “one company’s problem doesn’t make it a country’s problem.” Mr. Li went on to point out that 99 percent of Chinese food exports to the U.S. over the past three years have met applicable quality standards. “About the same, or even higher,” he claimed, than the same percentage for U.S. food exports to China.
Every action sparks a reaction, and nowhere is this more true than in China, a country where maintaining stability and balance is so important. Undoubtedly embarrassed by the negative publicity surrounding exports of defective and unsafe products to the United States, official China reacted, through Mr. Li and the actions taken by AQSIQ, as a way to maintain balance—and face.
This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the Chinese government will merely stonewall and avoid taking corrective action. In fact, there is a strong likelihood that the reaction to unsafe products from overseas consumers will trigger a clean-up campaign benefiting consumers in China. On issues like food quality, the interests of ordinary Chinese citizens are exactly aligned with those of U.S. consumers.
The suspension of U.S. meat products and the media blasts by Mr. Li are part of the country’s public response to the negative press—the part that attempts to deflect the criticism. The other part, which is meant to show that China is taking aggressive action to solve the problem, came last week when China conducted several high profile trials of officials caught taking bribes to look the other way with respect to tainted products. Even China’s most vocal critics were shocked by the death sentences that were handed out as punishment.
The real question is whether the government will take broader and more comprehensive action to solve what is obviously a very big problem. In 1993, China took aggressive action against a growing SARS epidemic, and almost overnight, SARS was a footnote in China’s history. Only time will tell if the country will take the same approach to food quality. Consumers in the U.S. and other countries certainly hope that it does. No doubt, the man on the street in China hopes so as well.