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Friday, April 24, 2015, 09:32

Food safety experts urge more honesty

By He Na
Food safety experts urge more honesty
Law e nforcers test edible oil at a store in a wholesale market in Liuzhou, the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, this month. (Tan Kaixing / for China Daily)

Food safety issues have undermined customer confidence in China in recent years, and even though conditions have improved, winning back customer trust is a challenge, a former US Food and Drug Administration official told China Daily in an exclusive interview.

"China's food safety is definitely getting better, there's no question in my mind now. China has robust standards for food," said David Acheson, founder and CEO of The Acheson Group, a food safety consulting firm, and a former FDA chief medical officer.

"But whether it means it's where we need to be, no," he said. "Neither is the US."

In a 2014 survey on food safety, some 48 percent of respondents were unhappy with China's food safety, compared with 29.7 percent in a previous one in 2012. The Research Center for Development and Regulation of the Food and Drug Industry interviewed 4,258 people in more than 10 provinces for the survey.

Acheson said food recalls are common, even in the US, but transparency is the key to retaining public support.

Consumers want to hear a strategy for dealing with the issue and that measures are being put into place to ensure the problems get fixed and won't be repeated, said Acheson's colleague, Melanie Neumann, a food safety expert and CFO of The Acheson Group.

"Good communication helps rebuild customer confidence and company brand loyalty," she said.

Important steps in restoring customer trust include disseminating food safety knowledge and understanding the rules of food supply chains, Acheson said.

The US has a different philosophy from China with food recalls. In the US, they are seen as part of the food business and sanctions for companies are not so severe, Acheson and Neumann said.

"China seems do the exact opposite," Neumann said. "Once China has recalls, it seems they declare a total failure in the system."

She suggested the Chinese regulators do their part to define and differentiate food safety and food quality issues to consumers. As an example, she cited the July 2014 case of Shanghai Husi Food, a subsidiary of US OSI Group, which was found to have supplied expired meat to fast-food restaurants including McDonald's and Yum Brands in China.

"Nobody died or was sickened because of it. And that's a quality issue, but not a food safety issue," she said. "But the definition is confusing in China. I saw the top food safety cases that the government announced in China in recent years, and in my experience many of them cannot be called safety issues at all."

The Husi case is still under investigation. OSI group's operations in 11 companies in China are suspended and many workers have been laid off or are looking for new jobs.

"There is one message that I could read from the government that something bad is happening there. But what are the facts? We have no idea," Acheson said.

Customers need truth and any investigation should be quick and open to the public, Neumann said.

"Silence brings fear. It will give people time to make up terrible stories. For any company you'd better come out with your truth," she said.

Severe punishments, such as those of company executives found guilty in China, can drive a culture of fear and discourage transparency, she said.

"We need the explanation from the company of what happened and how did that happen? And practical strategies to ensure it won't happen again," she said. "And, happily, we found that increasingly Chinese companies are looking at building global standards and increasing food safety."

hena@chinadaily.com.cn

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