Sunday, 12 April 2015

Being Socially Responsible

Chen Qiaoling (above) and Chen Hongrong recorded China's food scandals
Three years ago, Chen Qiaoling and Chen Hongrong, both graduate students at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management, founded Yueyaduo Food Safety Research Centre.

They published a book called China's Food Safety Record in January, documenting all the food-safety scandals reported in the media in recent years.

It took them two years to compile the book, and the pair paid for all the expenses to produce it. This book is the first to record food-safety incidents in China, and has been compared to former CCTV news presenter Chai Jing's self-financed documentary, Under the Dome, about China's air pollution.

Originally Chen Qiaoling thought after graduation she would have a stable job in Beijing, then buy an apartment and a car, and get a hukou or residency permit. But Chen Hongrong challenged her. "Shouldn't you do something beneficial to society and shoulder your social responsibility?" he asked.

Chai Jing made a documentary about China's air pollution
"I was touched by what he said. Hearing the phrase 'social responsibility' reminded me of a course I had taken about business ethics and social responsibility," Chen recalled. "I told him how the course included a case about food safety, and we started talking about the widely reported food-safety problems in China. We decided to do something about the issue, because it was an essential part of everyone's life. Nobody can escape from it."

As neither of them had taken courses related to food safety, the pair had to do extensive research. To gather more information on the ground, they went to nine provinces and municipalities, including Zhejiang, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hunan, Fujian, Shandong, and Hebei provinces, as well as Beijing and Tianjin.

They went to local farmers' markets, farms and supermarkets and surveyed people's opinions about food safety.

"We found that many people only had a very limited understanding. For example, some thought that if an agricultural product has been sprayed with pesticide, it is unsafe; others thought all food additives were not safe," says Chen.

"From these surveys, we realized that we needed to come up with something to let the public know what food safety is."

They were inspired by Harvey Wiley, the first commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration in the early 1900s. He and his colleagues published a series of reports on many food-safety issues that made the government, food producers and the public realize the need to improve the situation.

After compiling the book, Chen says there are two important issues regarding food safety in China, one of which is that many Chinese lack integrity.

"Many producers know they are using meat from dead pigs and cows, and that they are producing counterfeit food, but they don't care," she says.

"The second problem is the government cannot implement its regulations effectively. For example, China has set standards for edible oil, but a food-stand owner who sells deep-fried dough sticks isn't aware of them. He also won't know how to check whether the oil he uses complies with the standards. This is why more government guidance is needed."

At first only 200 copies of China's Food Safety Record were published for friends and family, as the authors didn't think anyone would read the book, let alone be willing to pay for it.

But after the book was in bookstores, they were surprised to find many people wanted to buy them, including civil servants, teachers and students majoring in agriculture, and people in the food industry, as well as readers who were concerned about the issue.

"Many people seem to think that it is very difficult to shoulder social responsibility," says Chen. "But actually once you start, it is not that hard at all. It is something many people can do. Many just don't have the courage to take the first step."

We thank Chen Qiaoling and Chen Hongrong for taking the initiative to do the research to put this book together as the definitive record on China's food-safety. Hopefully the government, particularly the central government will take notice and see the shortcomings in implementing its food safety measures and devise more effective ones.

The main issue of integrity is a troublesome one, whose root lies in morality. When people have no morals, then ensuring food safety is very difficult. How does one change the attitudes of unscrupulous people? It's going to take a long time to root out...

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