Strike Hard Policy On Food Safety Is Revealing

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This sounds serious:

China’s supreme court is encouraging judges across the country to issue heavier sentences, including the death penalty, for people convicted in food safety scandals.

The Supreme People’s Court said in a notice posted on its website Friday that courts should impose longer jail sentences and larger fines on people found guilty of violating food safety regulations. It said death sentences should be given in cases where people died. (AP)

What’s going on here? Several possibilities, but I’m thinking that some folks in Beijing are started to get mighty nervous about the continuous parade of food safety scandals that are seemingly populating the front pages of the newspapers on at least a weekly, if not a daily, basis. Name a major food type, and I bet we’ve had a problem with it in the past three years.

When people can’t trust their food supply, particularly at a time when food prices have risen to uncomfortable levels, folks tend to get cranky.

And the government has responded. New food safety laws and regulations, local initiatives in cities nationwide, a never-ending stream of hopeful rhetoric — you name it. And yet, the fun continues. That’s a governance problem that has to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.

Within this context, this latest bit of sunshine from the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has a slight whiff of desperation about it, although maybe my sense of smell is out of whack. (Note that I’m against the death penalty, so I’m biased on this issue.)

To be fair, the new food safety regulatory structure is going to take some time to get up and running. This kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight. But when the bad news comes at you every day, there is a tendency to think that the government is not doing enough. When kids are dying from poisoned food, folks are not going to be all that forgiving.

So if nothing seems to be working overnight, and confidence in the regulatory system has taken a hit, what to do? Apparently the answer is to appear tough by “throwing the book” at these defendants.

In addition to bolstering public confidence, there is also a second motivating factor in “striking hard” against these food company executives; it’s all about deterrence. Much to my chagrin, since I often make fun of Westerners who throw around Chinese sayings, this is best summed up by the old chestnut “Killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.” Sorry, had to do it.

So is the SPC’s move here more about public perception or deterrence? I’m thinking more the former than the latter. I’m pretty sure that food exec monkeys out there already know what the possible penalties are for poisoning the Chinese people, and yet they keep doing it. Deterrence, by killing the odd chicken now and again, will only get you so far.

On the other hand, the SPC’s sentencing advice is potentially effective PR-wise in two ways. First, the government looks tough and serious in telling judges how to proceed. Second, when and if a few capital cases come to fruition (i.e. executions are carried out), the government has additional opportunities to look like bad asses.

Makes sense, at least politically.

6 responses on “Strike Hard Policy On Food Safety Is Revealing

  1. DrearyLaw

    I guess that compared to the United States, the idea is that to compensate for the lack of an independent press (although perhaps this is one issue the restricted Chinese press IS equipped to handle), harsher sanctions are needed. I suppose that the area where an independent press is the most important is NOT discovering the food safety violations themselves, but rather in policing government agencies which are supposed to be safeguarding the population.

    Is that the dynamic, or is somethgin else going on?

    1. Stan Post author

      I think these scandals have been all over the press. They only get muzzled when rights groups get too organized.

  2. M.

    Big threats that are rarely enforced don’t seem to have much of an impact on people’s behavior. Wouldn’t systematically taking everyone’s money be more effective — especially if it were enforced for infractions short of death? And by everyone I mean the wives, children (i.e., no shelters), shareholders, etc. of the corporations convicted. It would provide a much better incentive for the companies to adopt modern techniques and to stop taking shortcuts.

    Don’t drink the PR kool-aid: common law negligence is a great system. Paranoia makes food safer, the injured have a de facto insurer, and it’s far more stable than what China’s got.

    1. Stan Post author

      Hmm, you sound like a plaintiff’s lawyer. :)

      I’m actually a big fan of litigation-based consumer action. Back when Ralph Nader was in his heyday, I was a big fan.

  3. Robert Park

    “I’m pretty sure that food exec monkeys out there already know what the possible penalties are for poisoning the Chinese people, and yet they keep doing it.”

    While this sentiment isn’t actually contradicting your statements from the previous food safety post (understandable, since they’re two different topics), I would have still expected them to be similar in spirit. You offer a lot more benefit of the doubt in the other one.

    “Here’s why. These scumbags who are cutting costs by including dangerous additives may or may not know about the health consequences. I assume that those that already know will not be swayed by additional education.

    On the other hand, there are probably plenty of manufacturers out there who, while they may know that they shouldn’t be using these food additives, may not be aware of the specific health consequences to consumers.

    In other words, “Yeah, I knew I shouldn’t be cutting MSG with arsenic, but I didn’t realize so many people would die.” At some point, even I have faith in human nature (to a limited degree).”

    What happened, Stan? :)

    Sad story. I bought a bottle of juice today. My co-workers told me there was brand new news about dangerous additives in bottled juice. They advised me to throw it out. After wrestling with it, I did. And now I’m still thirsty. Each day, I’m less and less able to figure out what’s OK to eat and drink. :(

    1. Stan Post author

      Nah, I’m gonna stick to my guns on this one. I think everyone knows that the death penalty is possible in these cases, but they may/may not know all of the possible consequences of using certain food additives.