What’s Needed to Solve China’s Safety Crisis

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Joe Kahn of the New York Times has an interesting piece in today’s newspaper about the safety of Chinese products. He compares China today to the U.S. at the turn of the century, noting that the Food and Drug Administration was created in 1906 in response to a series of scandals over shoddy and dangerous products. The focus of the Made in China story (see here for our most recent and relatively U.S.-centric take) is now shifting to the measures China is taking to address its regulatory problems. I spoke to a number of people recently about this issue and they all repeatedly stressed that they believed the government was extremely eager to address this issue and doing its best to put the right regulations in place. They were equally unanimous in their opinion that the process will take time. One of the strangest things about China’s transformation in the last two decades has been the way processes that took centuries elsewhere were telescoped by the unprecedented speed of change and sometimes seemed to happen overnight. That’s not going to happen with the government’s attempts to striaghten out China’s regulatory mess. Listen to Henk Bekedam, who heads the World Health Organization office in China. Bekedam says that reform of the regulatory system has been underway for some time but that there is still a long way to go. China will “get it right at the central level but it will take a while before things get better for the country as a whole.”He says many of the safety issues that plague both China’s food and pharmaceutical industries arise from institutional problems and institutions take notoriously long time to change.

“There is no government in the world that can be present at every step along the way where things are being produced. The most important thing is to strengthen the whole system, the suppliers must be certified, the workers and inspectors must be qualified. It’s the same with manufacturing. The distributors and wholesalers and even the outlets must have basic qualifications. China now has bits and pieces of that system but it is not consistent and that makes the system very vulnerable.”

Bekedam, a genial Dutch physician, says the sheer number of small manufacturers in China that have grown up during the last two boom decades make the problem much worse. In the pharmaceutical sector, for example, there are about 5000 small companies making drugs, which is “far too many. China has pretty good laws but it’s troublesome to follow them up” with so many companies out there. “It’s one thing to have a law, another to enforce it,” particularly in rural areas, where the central government’s say is weakest.

The WHO official also cites a problem that seems to be regularly mentioned in this blog: lack of transparency. It’s better to acknowledge the problems exist “even if you have to go through a rough time and admit things were wrong.” Take counterfeit drugs for example. “When they get these accusations, (the government) I know they really investigate them and go for the culprit.” But in one case he is familiar with, the initial response despite successfully identifying the guilty parties was “don’t talk about it. It was like pulling teeth getting it out of them. And this was something they should have come out and said themselves.”

As noted here earlier, the government is deeply conflicted about how to handle the useful but too often peskily independent media. Obviously, if they let Chinese reporters do their job and dig up the details about who is behind the factories manufacturing the poisonous toys/drugs/food etc they’d make a big, big start towards attacking the problem. But then, who knows what else might turn up in the process? Better to stay silent….