Beijing recently announced that a massive testing campaign has turned up no contamination in liquid milk made in China. That's a relief after milk powder tainted with an industrial chemical claimed the lives of at least four infants and sickened 54,000 in recent months. Just don't mistake this for a sign that Beijing has finally solved its food safety problem.
It's not that Beijing has been standing idle in the face of the catastrophe. Nearly three dozen local officials and dairy-industry workers have been arrested. The head of the national quality watchdog agency, Li Changjiang, was fired. Beijing has dispatched 5,000 inspectors to carry on round-the-clock monitoring at dairies. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have promised to fix the problem.
But authorities have taken similar steps in the past, without coming close to a lasting solution. Last year the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration was executed after his conviction on a bribery charge involving approving unsafe medicines. Last year, too, Beijing banned food exports containing melamine, the chemical additive in the milk contamination after the pet food scandal in the U.S. The government has beefed up its food inspections.
Despite all that, consumers still must worry about the safety and quality of the China-made foods and drugs they buy. That's because Beijing is unwilling to take the additional steps that might make a real difference.
Consider press freedom. A reporter at Southern Weekend magazine first blew the whistle on reports of babies possibly sickened by milk powder in late July. Or rather, he would have if he and his editor had been allowed to publish an article on the case. Instead, the story fell victim to a directive from the Propaganda Department forbidding negative reporting on food safety ahead of the Olympics.
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. Publications have been instructed to hew to reports issued by Xinhua, the state news organ. Online forums have allowed somewhat more room for discussion of the issue, although online bulletin board posts expressing anger over the scandal are often deleted.
Beijing has been similarly reluctant to develop another key component of modern quality assurance: an impartial judiciary that allows injured customers to seek compensation. A prominent lawyer, Li Fangping, was among the first to try to help the families of victims of the toxic milk; he and dozens of other attorneys published their phone numbers online as a makeshift "hotline" before the government initiated its own effort. He has since been warned off by authorities in Beijing, including representatives from the lawyers' association and the Judiciary Bureau, who have "asked" him to "have more trust in the [Communist] Party and the government," Mr. Li tells us.
Other lawyers have filed two cases against Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group, one of the largest dairies implicated in the scandal, on behalf of families whose infants fell ill, but the courts have yet to formally accept the cases. This week also saw the first attempted lawsuit by parents of an infant who died, though it's not certain yet they'll get their day in court. Chinese courts frequently dodge politically sensitive cases by refusing even to read the plaintiff's brief.
Even if cases were allowed to proceed and even if a court found in favor of a plaintiff, Chinese law still typically caps damages at the cost of medical expenses. The perverse result is that a Chinese infant isn't "worth" as much as an American dog: In the U.S. this week, thousands of pet owners are near approval of a $32 million settlement over last year's pet-food contamination case. China is the unhealthy opposite of America's runaway tort culture: Without a financial threat from lawsuits, companies have less incentive to be careful.
Beijing talks a good game about improving food safety, and no one believes President Hu or Premier Wen wants to let infants die because of tainted milk. But until China's authoritarian leaders are willing to loosen their grip on the media and the courts, a lasting food safety solution will prove out of reach. Meanwhile, the cascade of dairy recalls around the world highlights the fact that Beijing's failures are not just China's problem.