Fatal Misperception: How Unsafe Is Chinese Food?

At the Council on Foreign Relations, Yanzhong Huang challenges official claims that China’s food safety problems are overblown, and prescribes a more extensive, stringent and streamlined regime of food inspections.

Is China’s food safety problem exaggerated? Why is there such a perception gap between elites and the general public? Some government officials and scholars attribute the gap to information asymmetry in the food industry (food manufacturers know much more about the quality and safety of their products than ordinary consumers) as well as the relatively low “ignition point” of public reaction to food safety due to the potentially dangerous consequences of unknowingly consuming unsafe food. And according to Luo Yunbo, because many consumers get information on food safety from media reports, which are sometimes “not objective or reasonable,” an isolated food safety scandal could easily be “emotionally magnified.”

But this line of reasoning is flawed because it implies that similar perception gap would also exist in other countries, given that information asymmetry problem is inherent in any country’s food production and marketing process. It also cannot explain why in recent years centers for “special food supply” [Chinese] have been established across China to provide organic food to government officials. Indeed, if “irresponsible” media was able to contribute significantly to the perception gap on food safety, it was precisely because of the poor transparency in China and society’s lack of trust in the government. Against this backdrop, blaming the media for presenting bad, but accurate, news only diverts attention from real cause of the perception gap—that is, the lack of regulatory capacity in China. [Source]

See more on food safety in China via CDT.