I was recently invited by the Chinese government to review its research programme on improving food safety and food fraud detection. I sat in a very nice hotel in Beijing and had presentation after presentation from the many university and government agencies working in this area.
The Chinese public generally have high trust in their government, except when it comes to food safety and fraud. China has had a string of scandals dating back nearly a decade, and the consumer does not trust local produce. Many European companies are planning to capitalise on this or are already doing so by selling into this vast marketplace.
However, talking with some of the big multinationals that are investing heavily in China, they tell me they are facing two large problems. The first is there is a growing level of counterfeiting of their products, and these inferior - perhaps dangerous - products will lead to severe reputational damage to their bona fide brands.
The second issue is exactly what I picked up in Beijing. The Chinese are investing hugely in their food safety, and very well trained and educated staff are using the very latest technologies to detect contamination and adulteration. Within a couple of years China will have better testing systems than we do in the UK and indeed all of Europe.
So what does this mean? Firstly the Chinese food system will become a lot safer and the level of fraud will reduce substantially. Chinese consumers’ level of trust will undoubtedly increase. Secondly, with all the new technologies at hand, the question is if these will be used to start checking imported foods. The answer to this is clearly yes. So when (not if) food produced in the UK is exported to China and turned away because it is deemed unsafe, what will this do for our industry’s reputation?
The Defra drive to increase UK food exports is laudable, yet the lack of investment by the government in the UK food safety and food adulteration research programme will come back to haunt them. I do, of course, have a clear bias in that I conduct such research. But I feel a lot of this will in future be performed in collaboration with Chinese colleagues, not those in the UK.
Professor Chris Elliott is director of the Institute of Food Safety at Queen’s University, Belfast