Where is Chinese food law is headed to?

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2017 is about to finish….time for making a summary of what has happened this year and which road China’s food legislation is taking.

I had the pleasure to share my views on this at the “Food Law Comparative Perspectives: Safety, Trade, and Culture in Hong Kong, Asia, and the EU” at the Chinese University of Hong Kong earlier in December.

China has been opening its market to the world, and the food sector has been of pivotal importance. The food market is leading the way in this direction and it offers a very interesting perspective for several reasons: a) its cultural value – so deeply rooted in Chinese culture; b) the great number of food safety scandals that plagued China in the last decades; c) the rapid expansion and reliance on the online food market; d) its interconnection with demographic and cultural changes in China. The evolution of the Chinese food market is happening at a very fast pace and triggers important political and legal implications, very complex and which cannot be interpreted in a unilateral way. China is striving to upgrade its food safety level, it needs complying with WTO obligations while at the same time needs to protect local industry and build local champions.

In this scenario, we observe a perpetual evolution of Chinese food legislation following three major trends.

1) A first trend is the expansion of the scope of domestic regulation to cover several substances, ingredients, and additives that are already regulated overseas by rendering the regulatory regime rational and consistent. This sometimes goes in the direction of harmonization with international legislation and practice (the 2015 revision of Food Safety law also has interesting overtures in the perspective, and this also reflects in intellectual property, with the recent agreement 100+100 signed with the EU), while other times, this results in new obstacles to international trade. Let’s see three examples of this.

Chocolate

Until 2015, GB 9678.2 provided a maximum limit of 15 mg/kg for the content of copper in chocolate and chocolate products. This was a very strict limit for a substance – copper – for which Codex Alimentarius provided no maximum limit at all in chocolate and chocolate products. For instance, EU regulation appear to set limit to the content of copper only for cocoa beans, and in any case such limit is set at (50 ppm) much higher than GB 9678.2. This often created problems to the importation of chocolate – for instance, from Belgium.

In 2015 GB 9678.2 was reviewed, and limits to copper content were removed from it.

Cheese

More recently, news spread that – starting from August 2017 – Chinese authorities (namely CIQ) impose a ban on the importation of some kinds of cheese. Some food importers disclosed lists of cheese involved by such “ban” from which it appears that the concerned cheese was mainly blue cheese and some soft goat cheese. Although no official statement was issued by Chinese authorities about any such ban, it is very likely that – in fact – no new ban was actually introduced, but rather enforcement of already existing regulations.

In particular:

  • With referral to ripened (i.e. characterized by the coagulation in the process which after storage for a certain period produces characteristic flavor to the cheese) and unripened cheese (cheese directly edible after being prepared, without any aging period), GB 5420-2010, sets a maximum level (for ripened and unripened cheese) and of 50 cfu/g of yeast and mould. In EU – on the other hand – there is no such limit to yeast, as yeasts is considered to have no harm for human health, resulting in several EU cheese not complying with Chinese legal requirements and therefore facing problems for importation;
  • blue cheese – or mold ripened cheese – does not comply with notice 65/2010 and 25/2011 of the (former) Ministry of Health. These two notices contain positive lists of Bacteria Allowed for Food Use, both of which do not include bacteria used for blue cheese (Pennicyllum Roquefortii). Notice 65/2010 clearly specifies that – beside those on these lists – only bacteria traditionally used for food production and processing in China can continue to be used, while any other bacteria (such as – for instance – Pennicyllum Roquefortii) should be first cleared as “New Food Resource” after specific procedure.

In 2016, the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) together with the European Cheese Industry Desk and stakeholders have undertaken a revision of this Standard, which is not completed yet.

On October 23, 2017 it was announced that – after some meetings with relevant PRC authorities (NHFPC and AQSIQ) – an agreement to unlock the situation in favor of importation of blue and soft cheese had been reached, after technical meetings between EU delegations and NHFPC, and after NHFPC had send an explanatory note to AQSIQ clarifying that the bacteria involved are not harmful to consumer’s health.

Nitrates and Nitrites residues in water

Here we have an opposite case than chocolate and cheese.

In China, maximum limits to for the residue of these substances in food products were set by GB 2762-2012. Nitrite limits were set to 0.005 mg/L for drinking water and to 0.1 mg/L for mineral water; nitrate limits were set to 45 mg/L for mineral water.

These limits differ significantly from the official guidelines of World Health Organization, who recommended a maximum limits of 50 mg/l for nitrate and 3 mg/l for nitrite. EU legislation sets a limit for nitrates of 50 mg/L and for nitrites of 0.5 mg/L. Briefly, China limits for nitrites are 100 times lower than EU’s and 600 times lower than WHO’s.

In 2017 China revised GB 2762; however, the revised version did not modify the maximum limit to nitrates and nitrites. This great dis-alignment with WHO and international standards often creates problems to the importation of food products in China.

2) A second trend is enhancing market entry requirements for food players – with particular stress in sensitive/key sectors. We see this – for example – in the case of harmonized certificate, which is going to add a layer of compliance to every import. Yet, how bad is that? It could have ended much worst, if AQSIQ had kept its original requirements for a guarantee – by export country – that every food product complies with PRC regulations…. At the end a milder, more reasonable approach prevailed (mere guarantee that food “is apt for human consumption”) which – per se – should create little/no problems.

We also see manifestation of this trend in the requirements that every imported formula needs to be prior registered with PRC authorities, as well as in the – soon to come (but when exactly?) – extension of ordinary compliance requirements to all food imported through CBEC channel.

Labeling-wise, no big change, except for the revision of the original draft of implementing regulation of food safety law which banned stickers-label on imported food. This potentially disruptive clause has been repealed and – in the last version of this regulation – it does not appear anymore, meaning that companies do not need to modify printing equipment and procedure and still can choose whether using white stickers (which seem particularly appreciated in second and third tier cities, as consumers can easily use them to spot imported products that they are not otherwise familiar with) or whole-Chinese printed package (more popular in first tier cities, where many international-travelled Chinese consumers are already familiar with this products and can benefit from deeper communication about story-telling, recipe, etc…).

New products are going to enter China: for example, beef from Italy, France, Hungary,  Ireland, US, etc…

At the same time we shall also consider that we see efforts by PRC authorities to simplify market-entry authorizations for health-foods (through publication of pre-approved ingredients).

3) A third trend is a greater attention towards consumer protection which has resulted in a very strict and severe regulation against non-compliant food products. 2017 saw several pieces of legislation being introduced to govern ecommerce, online food service activities, food fraud punishment (which also is going to provide regulation for some specific claims).

At the same time, we also see some (timid) reactions against professional consumers: some decisions by courts going against bad-faith claims, some local high courts (notably: Chongqing, Shenzhen) issued internal guidelines against bad faith consumers.

My feeling is that China is becoming a more mature market, and this is reflected also by food regulation trends. Of course, to have the full picture we should consider also enforcement (i.e. practice versus theory). The cheese issue  was in fact a matter of enforcement. However – although from EU perspective there seem to be from time to time latent protectionist impulse –  results seem going into the direction of a more opened regulatory field for foreign products. Let’s see what 2018 will look like!

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