China has faced food safety problems so horrifying and otherworldly, they sound more like plotlines to surreal B-movies than anything that actually happened on terra firma. A criminal gang attempts to sell meat from the 70s… in 2015; killers mix baby formula with antifreeze and terrorize a nation; a gang of thugs sell gutter oil to grocery stores and rake in millions.
Decent movie ideas. If only they weren't true.
But now China has revised its food safety laws. Or perhaps we should say it has revised its food safety laws again. After all, the last overhaul, which did not result in radical changes, took place in 2009. The newly revised laws will go into effect later this week.
Under the new laws, violators will face what are widely regarded as the heaviest civil and criminal punishments ever mandated in China. Whistleblowers will be rewarded for telling authorities about violations. In addition, according to Xinhua News Agency, companies that violate the law will have restrictions placed on their "loans, taxation, bidding and land use"—penalties not typically seen under Western law.
China, it seems, is now getting serious. An official from the Ministry of Public Security has said he wants to train police units in food crimes. The government also wants to coordinate responsibilities among the various agencies that deal with food safety. This is a welcome advance, according to Bian Yongmin, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, who says, "The involvement of so many authorities also [causes] problems of coordination from enactment to enforcement."
But despite these measures, experts say it is unclear whether the changes to the law will do the trick in actually improving China's food safety. Even four years ago, food safety violators faced no less than the death penalty for cases in which people died from their ill deeds. Still, China's food safety record remained, well, abysmal.
The problems in China run deep. With a huge population, a relatively small amount of farmable land, and lots of tiny, subsistence farms, China's problems are not easily fixed. Organic food and imports have become popular amongst those who can afford them.
In addition, China's legal system is not exactly a paragon of justice. Commenting on China's last update of its food safety laws in 2009, Time wrote that China's "legal system still struggles with corruption and a willingness of some local authorities to prioritize growth over health and safety."
But some are hopeful that the new law will lead to the radical change China so desperately needs. One step in the right direction, or at least a step toward some awesome TV in China: Trials of some notorious food crimes will be broadcast live.
Also, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the highest agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting legal matters in the People's Republic, has said it will "take action over neglect of duty in food production as well as safety supervision."
Huo Yapeng of the Supreme People's Procuratorate says he is hopeful: "By analyzing the underlying causes of the cases through investigations and trials and drawing lessons from them, the SPP will be able to give advice and help businesses set up regulations and fix loopholes."
We'll see. In the meantime, listen up, Hollywood screenwriters: if you're looking for innovative disaster plotlines, look no farther than Chinese food news.