Official diet

Why bureaucrats don’t have to worry about food safety

Official diet

You are what you eat

By most measures, China’s leaders have failed to make the country’s food safer to eat. And a recent Southern Metropolis Weekly exposé points to one of the more compelling reasons for this lack of success: the country’s top officials don’t have to eat the same food as the rest of the population.

WiC readers will be more than familiar with the food scandal storyline. Melamine in milk was followed by clenbuterol in pork. Last month, there were even exploding watermelons. So food safety is rarely out of the headlines as a pressing concern for Chinese consumers. And for senior officials too, it seems, although they have fewer difficulties accessing more wholesome supply.

“The general public needs to pay high prices for organic produce,” writes Southern Metropolis, “but for the ‘leadership’… it is effortless.”

That’s the case for government ministries from the State Council all the way down to the provincial courts. Officeholders typically have access to dedicated farms, which are said to be growing a much higher quality of food.

“If they are unable to have their own farms, major government departments will choose reliable suppliers,” explains sister-publication Southern Weekend. “The food grown to government order is genuinely green and safety is put first.”

That means less need to worry about cadmium-tainted rice or glow-in-the-dark pork.

The farms follow strict protocols – using organic fertiliser and quarantining plants that have been sprayed with pesticide.

“If [the quarantine] period hasn’t finished in time,” a staff member at farm told reporters, “we’ll let the vegetables rot rather than pick them.”

Government-affiliated farms are required to keep detailed records about how plants are cultivated and animals husbanded. And that’s only the start of the monitoring process: “To ensure quality [and independence], the Ministry of Agriculture sends in testing teams from other provinces,” according to Southern Weekend, “[and local] authorities carry out random tests in order to make sure there are no slip ups.”

The cost of violating those rules is expulsion from the ministry’s food procurement programme. Farmers are unlikely to find as reliable a customer again. “Once you’ve been selected [by a government department], you have both reputation and capital,” an insider told Southern Weekend, “and you don’t have to worry about selling your products.”

That’s prompted some food producers to leave the private market altogether. “Last year, we withdrew [from] supermarkets and now mainly supply the canteens of national ministries,” organic pig merchant We Guiwen explained. “We found that ordinary people have poor awareness of green food and can’t afford the prices.”

But it is not only because ministries can afford to pay for quality. “The price paid to ‘special’ farms is certainly higher than in the market,” says government chef Zheng Xiusheng, “but excluding corruption and distribution costs, the difference between the two is not particularly large.” The real reason for the success of the programme, Zheng argues, is a well-designed monitoring system. “Economic motives alone are useless,” he told the magazine. “Only administrative means allow people to eat at ease.”

One potential conclusion: a system to ensure safe food is possible – but is thought to be too expensive to be made available to everyone.

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