A leading United Nations human rights official expressed concern Thursday over China’s treatment of food safety activists.

Olivier De Schuttter, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s independent expert on the right to food, said in a news conference that he was worried about societal and governmental intimidation of activists.

Citing the charges against Zhao Lianhai, a father-turned-food safety activist after his son was sickened by melamine-tainted milk formula in 2008, De Schutter said the case could hamper future activism.  Last month, Zhao was sentenced to two and a half years in jail “for inciting social disorder” because he organized parents impacted by the melamine scandal to protest.

“I think that freedoms of expression, freedoms of association, such as those that Mr. Zhao was exercising, are key to protecting social and economic rights such as the right to food … I think a situation such as that of Mr. Zhao is a source of concern to all those who defend the right to food,” said De Schutter.

De Schutter added that he brought up his concerns about Zhao’s case in meetings with China’s Foreign Ministry, who told DeSchutter Zhao was not “prosecuted or convicted for advocacy — he was convicted for public disorder,” an international wire service reported.

Minxin Pei, a leading expert on China and political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, said he believes China’s actions will deter people from blowing the whistle on serious food safety problems.  

“[The Chinese government] is treating the symptoms without doing much about the underlying causes,” said Pei. “By retaliating against the person who raised alarms about the tainted milk, the government is actually deterring ordinary people from going to the authorities in the future regarding unsafe food.”

China has struggled to bolster its food safety image in recent years in the wake of a series of high profile food scandals.

Over the summer, newspapers revealed that carcinogenic recycled cooking oil, known as “gutter oil,” was widely used in restaurants.  Last spring, Chinese authorities dealt with pesticide-laden string beans, lead in candy, and the re-emergence of melamine-tainted dairy products, which were apparently never fully removed from the marketplace after a 2008 scandal that sickened 300,000 and killed six infants.