What China Can Learn From 19th-Century Britain — The American, A Magazine of Ideas
Beijing has a major problem with food contamination. The British solved a similar dilemma in the 1800s.What China Can Learn From 19th-Century Britain — The American, A Magazine of Ideas
“Brand China” has taken a beating this year. More than ever before, Chinese-made products are associated with counterfeiting and contamination. Some Chinese fakes have been amusing, such as the computer-generated fireworks used during the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics. But China’s tainted goods have caused hundreds of deaths and harmed tens of thousands.
In terms of brand management, China could learn a lesson from 19th-century Britain. During the mid-1800s, the British faced a serious food contamination problem. In various incidents, people died after eating desserts laced with arsenic and copper arsenite, and hundreds got sick from drinking beer that contained copper sulphate.
As economist Julian Morris of the International Policy Network explains, these problems were solved only when British food producers decided to put public safety above short-term profits
Over the next few decades, the use of dangerous additives in British food products declined enormously due to brand competition. Litigation and regulation made the problem even rarer.What China Can Learn From 19th-Century Britain — The American, A Magazine of Ideas
Will China allow brand competition to develop? Will it allow lawsuits from individuals harmed by contaminated goods? The evidence is mixed.What China Can Learn From 19th-Century Britain — The American, A Magazine of Ideas
Consider the ongoing tainted milk scandal. More than 30 government officials and dairy industry workers have been arrested, and the head of the national food quality watchdog has been fired. Thousands of safety inspectors are scurrying around the country measuring food products for contamination, and government officials have vowed to quell the crisis.
Unfortunately, these actions came only after months of delay. The company at the heart of the Chinese milk crisis, Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group (SSG), tried to cover up the scandal when it first came to light earlier this year. SSG sought support from the government and demanded a media blackout. It appears that Beijing cooperated. As The Wall Street Journal Asia reported last week, a Chinese journalist wanted to blow the whistle on the milk scandal prior to the Olympics but was unable to do so. He “fell victim to a directive from the Propaganda Department forbidding negative reporting on food safety ahead of the Olympics,” the Journal noted. “This episode shows how China’s media controls make it impossible for the press to serve as an effective watchdog. Since the milk scandal erupted, Beijing has grown more restrictive, not less.”
Neither can Chinese nationals expect any serious legal protection. Lawyers representing the families of children harmed by the tainted milk have filed three cases against SSG. So far, these cases have not been accepted by the courts; even if they are, the most the families can expect is compensation for their medical expenses.
The changes most needed in China are simple: openness to media scrutiny, greater business competition, and an independent judicial system. The present system leaves Chinese children less protected than American pets. (Thousands of U.S. pet owners are close to reaching a $32 million settlement over last year’s Chinese pet-food contamination case.)