Roundtable Summary--July 29, 2013

Roundtable Summary: China food safety: Needs, Challenges and Approaches  July 29, 2013, Charlotte, NC, IAFP

Organizers and Moderators: Zhinong Yan, Li Maria Ma, and Ruiqing Pamboukian (Organized by Chinese Association for Food Protection in North America (CAFPNA)).

Yanbin Li, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, USA;
Pamela Wilger, Cargill Inc., Wayzata, MN, USA;
Xiumei Liu, Ministry of Health, Beijing, China;
Leslie Bourqium, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA; 
Jason Wan, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Bedford Park, IL, USA.

Opening session:

Each panelist was introduced by the Moderators and each of them delivered a short speech (summary see below).

Brief introduction of the five panelists:

  • Dr. Xiumei Liu—Professor at National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety, China CDC.  She is in charge for the National Surveillance Network of Foodborne Diseases in China and microbiological risk assessment on microbial hazards in food.
  • Dr. Leslie D. Bourquin—Professor at Michigan State University. He collaborates with federal goverment on emerging food safety problems and risk communication. He also provides education and outreach on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) for food producers and processors, consumers, government agencies and the media.
  • Dr. Jason Wan—Associate Director and Professor at the Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH) atIIT. He coordinates food safety related research programs and leads IFSH’s graduate education programs in Food Safety and Technology and Food Process .
  • Dr.Pamela A Wilger—Global manager of food safety training in Cargill, Inc.
  • Dr.Yanbin Li—Professor in University of Arkansas. His research focuses on the development of biosensor for rapid detection for foodborne pathogens

Dr. Yanbin Li started the opening statement and discussed the food safety issues in China. Food safety is deeply related to Chinese people’s health and lives.  Food safety system in China must be built up by self-disciplined individual food business industry and effective policies from central government.  In China, approximately ten regulatory bodies including ministries and governmental departments monitor the food safety at national level, with the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA), the State Drug Administration (SDA), the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture being the most important authorities. Additionally, the China International Food Safety & Quality (CIFSQ) Conference is held annually for governmental, academic, and industrial people to exchange novel ideas and build up close connections.  The importance of food safety in China has been well-known by food companies and the general public. Through his work in China, Dr Li founds the biggest challenge for improving food safety situation in China is that the industry is too large to manage well. There are more than 100 million farms and more than 500,000 food companies in China, thus it is difficult to follow the food inspection model in the US or Europe. Chemical and biological hazards are big problems for food producers and processers. Using biosensor for rapid detection of pathogens and chemical residue becomes more and more important. To improve the food safety in China,  the current approaches should focus on developing new technologies, educating more food safety professionals, and training of the food industry personnel. 

Dr. Xiumei Lu talked about the progress of food safety management and collaborations in China. Currently, the Chinese food safety management system contains mainly three parts. Ministry of Agriculture, responsible for the quality of food product; General Bureau of Food and Drug, authorizing over the production, distribution and consumption of food and drug products; National Health Commission, which is expected to be responsible for food safety risk assessment and national food safety standard establishment. China is also developing its food incident response system.

Chinese government is working on implementing food safety law related to edible agricultural products, including mycotoxins in food, pathogen detection methods in food.

Challenge in the future: food safety is a global issue; communication among countries is a big challenge. Also, communication among government, industry and consumer is important.

One of the challenges to improve food safety management is culture shock and change. In China, most of the people live in countryside and used to have small family farm/ fruit garden as their business from generation to generation. They don’t have huge industrial farm. Therefore, the management of food safety could not  be enforced effectively and systematically. On the other hand, many  food companies know Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) but the problem is that they don’t know how to implement the HACCP in the food processing plant on their own. In most of situations, the companies have HACCP on their hand but just ignore or implement it recklessly and carelessly.  Another issue is related to product certificate policy. Chinese government focuses on the certificate of finished product inspection too much. As a result, many food companies usually waste a lot of time and labor to test finished products instead of paying more attention on safety issues or enforcing HACPP. The safety training of personnel in food industry was implemented well by Chinese authorities and companies. However, most of the employees do not care about this problem too much.  We need to call attention to educate our employee in companies, students in school and people in the entire society to stress the importance of food safety   

Dr. Leslie D. Bourquin in his opening statement mentioned that in 2009, he worked with Coca-Cola to establish some training programs in China. During that time, they established standard e-learning platforms for trainee which provided exposure to trainee and asked them to develop plan themselves. All the training material is available in both Chinese and English to ensure better understanding. Training was mainly provided to government employees, academia, and industry professionals in China. Dr. Bourquin emphasized that their training program was developed in a way that trainee would be able to train others eventually, if required. Trainees were required to have internet access to get the training. He mentioned that the overall response was great.  In China,  people have good understanding of food safety management in general but when getting into details it become complicated to some. One issue with food safety training program in China is that the quality of the translation of training material is not as high as expected. Also, people being trained are very good at theoretical understanding, but when come to the real world, they are lack of the ability to apply what they learned to real situation.

Dr. Jason Wan mentioned in his opening statement he has been collaborating with Chinese universities for the past four years. He worked in Australia for 20 years and moved to US four years ago. In 2000, he received funding opportunity from Chinese government. In 2004, he was the part of symposium organizing committee in Beijing, China and in 2007, he was involved in the Chinese Food Safety and Quality Conference.

Ms. Pamela Wilger started by providing a brief history about Cargill Company. She mentioned that Cargill produces a lot of food ingredients and conducts business with China for over 30 years. She discussed various challenges food industry has to face in China, for example, risk communication. She said that media tends to confuse people sometimes. Exchanging information on risk among risk assessors, managers and public is very important.  She believes that there is a lot of young talents in China and food safety is a very new topic there. However, food industries always prefer to hire experienced persons as managers. Those people are equipped with less advanced knowledge than the young generations. That would be a dilemma.

Another challenge is the lack of trade associations and company has to deal with many farmers at one point of time. Different cultural believes also become constraints sometimes.

When it comes to the ethics, it is more a culture issue. Chinese culture is difficult to change due to its long history. For example, most of the people choose the product according to the price but not the value.

She also mentioned that Cargill has collaborated with many countries, no matter what the food safety system in that country,  they have the same requirement for the HACCP or product facility

Cargill now has just established a chicken processing facility in China. Hope in some day, they can put the small chicken farms in China together and easy to manage the chicken product in China.

The major questions and answers discussed in this roundtable discussion:

Q1: How to address the issue of divided lands and so many farmers in china in order to increase the business opportunities?

Although Dr. Li’s response is “yes”, but most of the panelists replied that it is not possible to compare a developed and advanced country like the United States with a developing country like China. There are less natural resources and a lot more competition in China. However, things are improving at very fast pace. Panelist replied that Chinese government is supporting agricultural mechanization which will eventually promote the unification of farms. However this process will take several years. Food safety in China is definitely improving but due to several other issues the country has to face, food safety is not on their top priority list.

Q2: There are many small holders in food industry in China. How does Chinese government regulate these individual processing plants using the same standard. Take infant formula as an example.

Dr. Liu pointed out some of the effort that the government had been made, such as to sell infant formula in drug stores instead of supermarkets. But this effort may end up in vain due to the high consumption and parents’ willingness to spend money on their only child. It is also difficult to administer food and drug together. The reform of the infant formula industry actually depends on the infant formula producers.

Pamela said that education and training is the root of improvement. There are only a few plants in China know how to run a good HACCP plan. Also the government focused too much on finished products’ certification and testing. Instead of focusing on finished product, testing more environment and in-line processing samples could help establish a good HACCP plan.

Dr. Bourquin helped Coca-Cola training in China in 2009. Companies in China have more complex supply chain, thus being proactive is very important.

Dr. Wan agreed with Pamela’s idea that Chinese food producers don’t know how to implement HACCP plan. They need to go through every single step of HACCP, and not just focus on filling forms and fulfill certificates. Actually the level of entering the food industry is quite high for food producers, especially infant formula.

Dr. Huang from University of Georgia pointed out several important aspects of the issue. The first is that HACCP is used as a marketing tool in China while it is mandatory in the US. China and US both have a huge food industry with large export and import. It is the collaboration of government, industry and consumer that keeps the industry going prosperously. The reform of China’s FDA is a fast progress comparing to the establishment and improvement of the US FDA. The industry needs to make effort in long-term education and short-term training. On the consumer’s side, the concept of paying more money for value is what they need to adapt to. The education of this perspective is also necessary.

Q 3: Lack of trained professionals in food safety who can go to the farm and perform audits is an issue in China?

Panelist mentioned that food safety is very young field in China.  Currently,  many more Chinese college students are getting interested in this field which will definitely help in bringing the change.

Q4: How to work together with Chinese to teach them that building long term reputation is more important than profit?

To address this question, Pamela Wilger mentioned that disaster sometimes can bring bigger change. She talked about the melamine in pet food outbreak and said that this particular incident brought significant change in the mind set of many people. Pamela Wilger mentioned that Cargill has recently opened a chicken processing plant in China. At the beginning, the company had to face many issues because it was a big change for the local people. But slowly and slowly through education and training, Cargill was successful in establishing its plant. On a similar ground, Dr. Bourquin mentioned that when he worked with Coca-Cola in China on suppliers, they were very proactive as they visited several suppliers’ facilities and communicated very clearly with them about Coca-Cola’s standards. Panelists agreed that with leadership, food industry can bring change in China.

Q 5:  Is there any alternative model that can help in achieving some goals such as trade organization?

Panelists replied that there are several organizations which are similar to trade organizations: COFCO is similar as trade association. Dr. Wan: There is a Chinese food industry association as well as associations for specific product, such as dairy industry association and confectionary industry association. However, the problem is that those organizations do not influence government that much.

Q6. Cindy Jiang from McDonald’s: In China ethical is involved in food safety issues. Some companies are fast moneymakers, while others really want to produce good products. The key is that you really need to work with people and don’t just rely on certificates. The question is that in terms of collaboration, what are the key points need to break through?

When we are training the employees, hand by hand training is every effective. We cannot learn much just from some paper and books. Even for government employee, when they make some decision, it is very helpful to them to travel to the provessing sites to see what facility are looking like, how they process the product and get some hands on experiment rather than just reply on conference call.

What Cargill did is to let some employers to travel to visit plant, where they know how the training program look like, how the products are made, and networking with personnel in the plant. They also invite people from the government to visit their facilities.

Q7: U.S has many imports from China each year. How to know product made in China meet the US requirement?

Food safety is a global issue, not only exist in China and US. We see not only certificate but see all the relationship. We go deep to the processing plant, and understand the risk of the suppliers, and understand how HACCP works on that plant. If the plant is of high risk, we would like to have a stronger relationship with that plant and to better monitor or control them.

Wrapped up by Ruiqing Pamboukian: Do we have the solution yet?  The answer is no, but we have discussed some of the challenges and some great ideas during this session.  Due to the complexity of the China food production, processing and distribution system, there are no quick fixes. However, with the recent established centralized authority – China FDA, increased accountabilities of industry, innovative technologies for pathogen and additives detection, improved public engagement, we expect gradual improvements in China food safety area in the coming years.