China Embraces Meat Safety Legislation

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In late August, legislators in Beijing met to discuss China’s first-ever comprehensive law on animal husbandry, pushing meat safety to the top of the national agenda at a time when avian flu and other livestock-related diseases are ravaging parts of Asia. The bill, initially proposed in 2001, underwent legislative review at the 17th meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), convened August 23-28.

The draft law contains specific stipulations on disease control, mandating that farmers register their farms, establish traceable breeding records, and report any outbreaks to local animal epidemic prevention agencies. It also encourages larger-scale animal production as a means of disease control: according to China People's Daily, small-scale household farming and farmers’ lack of awareness of disease prevention contributed to recent outbreaks of avian flu and swine streptococosis in parts of the country. In addition, the bill grants farmers the right to “reasonable compensation” for any infected stock and poultry destroyed by the government. It faces two more review sessions before being set into law, according to China Economic Net.

Several days after the legislative session, Vice Minister of Agriculture Zhang Baowen reiterated at Beijing’s 21st Century Forum that food safety is one of four major challenges confronting China’s agricultural sector (along with protection of farmland resources, maintaining a stable supply of agricultural products, and sustainable development). China is now the world’s largest producer of red meat and among the top five exporters, with production reaching 74 million tons in 2004, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Animal-related epidemics and contamination from pesticide and chemical residues are the country’s two leading food-safety concerns.

Recent outbreaks of animal disease, including avian flu, foot-and-mouth disease, and swine streptococosis, have seriously affected China’s meat export industry. As a measure of precaution, several major importers, including Japan, the United States, and the European Union, have established stricter hygiene standards for Chinese meat and poultry under the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. Importers have also imposed bans during severe outbreaks, resulting in huge financial losses to Chinese exporters. China's New Veterinarian Magazine reported that only an hour after China announced avian flu outbreaks in Guangxi and Hubei provinces in January 2004, more than 40 countries and regions took prompt measures to limit or ban imports of poultry and related products. Though most of the bans were lifted after China brought the disease under control, they still buffeted the nation’s poultry export industry.

Chinese consumers are increasingly concerned about food safety as well, particularly as evidence shows that several animal diseases, including avian flu and mad cow disease, are transmittable to humans. Meanwhile, contaminated meat and poultry have contributed to growing incidence of food-borne illness and related fatalities, undermining consumer confidence. Domestic demand for meat in China has grown steadily with the improvement in living standards: China Animal Husbandry Net reports that per-capita consumption in urban areas nearly doubled from 17 kilograms in 1979 to 33 kilograms in 2003, an annual increase of 2.8 percent. In rural areas, the annual increase was 4.5 percent. Goldman Sachs predicts continued growth of about 6 percent a year between 2004 and 2008, a significant rise given China’s population of 1.3 billion.

China is only one of many developing economies now encouraging larger-scale meat production methods. Once limited to North America and Europe, factory farming is now the fastest growing form of meat production worldwide. The greatest rise is occurring in urban centers of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, reports Worldwatch Institute researcher Danielle Nierenberg in her recent study, Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry.

With the landmark bill on livestock farming now in deliberation, China is sending a clear signal of its determination to take steps to guarantee the safety of its meat. In a world beleaguered by animal diseases and threatened by potentially massive epidemics, this is an encouraging move.