An outbreak of African swine fever has China’s meat eaters, investors and bureaucrats in a panic. That should be no surprise: The country is the world’s biggest pork producer and consumer, and has a history of food-safety and health scandals that have fueled public distrust.
The government’s response, in culling 38,000 pigs, has been quick and efficient this time. But public suspicion, fanned by the handling of previous incidents, is running high. Authorities are seeking to censor social media posts and restrict reporting of the disease in state media.
China has undergone more than a decade of recurrent pork scandals. That’s created a credibility gap that’s not easily fixed. Loath to acknowledge mistakes and averse to transparency, the government will need to modulate its approach if it’s to regain trust and ensure there are no further repeats.
The process would start with a proper accounting. The most disruptive -- and often revolting -- episodes are notorious, from a mysterious disease outbreak in 2007 that the government tried to hush up, to the appearance of thousands of dead pigs in a Shanghai river in 2013, to the discovery of a mass grave containing at least 220 tons of diseased carcasses last year.
The government’s responsibility for these incidents varies. But for many Chinese, two underlying issues are always the same, and contribute to a constant feeling of crisis around the nation’s food supply. First, there’s widespread distrust of the government’s ability to supervise and regulate farmers. China has spent decades and billions trying to transform a countryside dotted with small, family-owned farms into one dominated by large, standardized corporate operations. Yet the small farms persist. More than half of China’s pork is produced on farms that slaughter fewer than 500 pigs per year.
Regulating tens of millions of small pig farms is almost impossible in a country where rural governments are famously stretched for funds and often fail to meet national mandates. Meanwhile, out of sight of Beijing, corrupt relationships between farmers, food processors and regulators flourish. For example, in 2011 more than 980 people were arrested when the stimulant clenbuterol was found in locally produced pork. Among them were farmers and regulators who had evaded detection until press in China and around the world took an interest.
The second factor is the Chinese government’s longstanding lack of transparency concerning matters of public health. It’s a failing that fixed in the public’s imagination in 2003 during the SARS outbreak, when Chinese authorities ordered doctors to downplay the epidemic and hide patients from the World Health Organization. The subterfuge allowed severe acute respiratory syndrome to spread more widely, and for many Chinese permanently damaged the credibility of the public health authorities.
Four years later the scale of that mistrust was demonstrated when a deadly infection known as blue-ear pig disease began wiping out stocks across China. The government claimed the disease had infected 165,000 of China’s 500 million pigs. But hardly anyone believed the figures, in part because the price of pork skyrocketed 85 percent in the face of nationwide shortages. In Shanghai, where I lived at the time, many simply avoided the staple meat altogether out of fear -- often expressed on online bulletin boards -- that a much worse problem was being covered up.
Unfortunately, secretiveness has remained the knee-jerk official reaction to more recent problems. For example, five years after 16,000 dead pigs floated down the Huangpu River in Shanghai, the government still hasn’t revealed who or what caused the repulsive tide.
There is also good news. By most measures, China is more transparent about health and safety than it was during SARS (an admittedly low bar), and it has made significant efforts to improve the health and safety of its pork supply in recent years. A crackdown on pig farm-related pollution has forced smaller operations to close. Bigger farms won’t erase all of China’s food-safety ills, but they will ensure a level of standardization that eases mistrust.
These are laudable efforts that should be supplemented with land reforms that offer incentives for additional small farmers to sell or rent their land to corporate entities, and a publicly available national database for reporting and tracking animal disease outbreaks.
Neither initiative will close China’s food-safety credibility gap on its own, or quickly. But combined, they’ll help to erode decades of mistrust and bring some serenity to dinner tables.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.