Of Recycled Buns, Food Safety in China, and the Jabberwocky of Political Debate


       “I am no longer eating steamed buns, a 65-year-old Shanghai man who gave his last name as Chen, declared in front of a supermarket window emblazoned with the motto “No fake goods in Hualian.”

“None of them are reliable,” he spat. “They really have no morals. They will do anything for money.”[1]  — New York Times, May 7, 2011

Today Bill Marler forwarded a link to me that led to an article in the People Daily’s Online on the ongoing food quality and safety challenges in the Chinese market for food.[2]   Reading the article, one section quickly stood out for me, particularly in its use of an interesting metaphor for unsafe food:


        Tainted melamine milk powder, salted duck eggs containing cancer-  causing dyes, artificial honey, fake wine, donkey-hide gelatin, waste oil, sulfur steamed ginseng, plaster tofu, dyed bread … the list goes on. 

         Sadly, many people estimate that the list will get longer. Every day we worry about the next food time bomb exploding, we just do not know where the site of the blast will be.

I had never before imagined adulterated food as a kind of bomb waiting to explode as soon as someone buys the food and eats it, and consumers as casualties of a kind of economic warfare in which profit motives are controlling. But what an apt metaphor it is, especially in describing the vulnerability of the consumer to the financial motives of food sellers who, as the article puts it, “have individual rationalizations, if the illegal gains exceed the costs, it will be worth it.” The article continues, concluding as follows:

         As food safety affects the interests of each person, and may threaten social stability, it should arouse the attention of the government. The problem that exists for ordinary people is simply: what can we safely eat today?

Of course, the problem is that, with food, one never really knows whether the food about to be eaten will cause illness, injury, or death. It is not as if it is feasible to drag a microbiologist around with us every time we go food shopping so that we can test for pathogens before putting that package of ground beef in our shopping cart. Ultimately, buying food and eating it is, and always will be, a matter of trust — or strategic denial.  Indeed, when we are no longer able to trust the food available in the marketplace, then buying food becomes a matter of insecurity and fear. When will the next time bomb go off? And who will be the next casualty?

Coincidentally — or perhaps not — was the article published in the May 7 New York Times on food safety in China in which much the same points about profit motives and consumer vulnerability and fear were made:


         Scandals are proliferating, in part, because producers operate in a cutthroat environment in which illegal additives are everywhere and cost-effective. Manufacturers calculate correctly that the odds of profiting from unsafe practices far exceed the odds of getting caught, experts say. China’s explosive growth has spawned nearly half a million food producers, the authorities say, and four-fifths of them employ 10 or fewer workers, making oversight difficult.


         China’s iron political controls ensure that no powerful consumer lobby exists to agitate for reform, press lawsuits that punish wayward producers or lobby the government to pay as much attention to consumer safety as it does to controlling threats to its own power. Instead, like Alice after falling through the rabbit hole, consumers must guess what their food and drink contain.

          “Basically, people now feel nothing is safe to eat,” said Sang Liwei, who directs the Beijing office of the Global Food Safety Forum, a private agency. “They don’t know what choices to make. They are really feeling very helpless.”[3]


According to this article’s author, this feeling of helplessness by Chinese consumers, the feeling of having “their hands tied,” can be contrasted with that of “their Western counterparts.” And I suppose some amount of contrast does in fact exist, but only as a matter of degree, not kind. Certainly, consumers in the United States can and do “press lawsuits” against culpable food sellers, and consumers can and do “lobby the government to pay as much attention to food safety as it does to its own power.” But if you listen closely to the ongoing political debates, there is more than one political faction that would have the United States more closely resemble China, with significantly less (or no) regulation and government oversight, and a robust trust in the economic forces of a “free” market to provide consumers with food that is as safe and wholesome as they are able to demand and pay for.  

The only problem with this conception of a free market in food is that, just as with Alice and Wonderland, it is nothing but fiction. Recall Alice’s response to reading the Jabberwocky poem, and ask yourself to what extent it works as a response to ardent free market proposals.

         “It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas–only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.”

Although I would not go so far as to describe all defenses of free market (or laissez-faire) economics as a nonsense poem, at least with regard to the market for food, will do so. A truly free market in food makes about as much sense as Bandersnatch, snicker-snack, and mimsy.

I offered a detailed critique of this fictional “free market” in food in an article I published last year in the Stanford Law and Policy Review[4],  and I will not repeat my arguments here. I do, however, want to mention my notion of “(cr)edibility,” a term I coined to describe and define the element both most lacking, and most needed, for a market for food to satisfy the safety and quality desires of consumers.  Summarizing the definition, I explained, 

         the term (cr)edibility is intended to reveal food exchange as an essentially (and unavoidably) intimate act that can never be fully commercialized. The exchange of food, whether by gift or sale, is founded and made possible by trust of the most extreme and significant kind. There are few things that make one more vulnerable than eating. Accordingly, (cr)edibility is the sine qua non of food exchange.[5]


Without (cr)edibility in the market for food, or an understanding of its necessity to any market model, we are left with a political debate dominated by competing caricatures, between the laissez-faire of the Wild West, and Stalinist state-control and the utter failure of five-year-plans. In this competition, government-imposed regulation is inevitably and inherently a bad idea, never resulting in anything but inefficiency and failure. Instead of government control or supervision of the marketplace, the “invisible hand” of profit motives should be allowed to work its magic, producing the most efficient results in satisfying consumer demands. Like in China.

Which brings me to my final point. In the debate over food safety,
example of China provides the means of escaping the intractable either-or of the political debate over regulations.  If we can agree that laissez-faire in China is not a model to follow, we are then better able to appreciate the significance of fake eggs and “recycled” buns in China.  But if we merely see China as foreign and undeveloped, as the “other” to our more developed approaches to food safety in the United States, we will miss out on recognizing that many politicians in our country are holding up China as a model for us to follow — they just will not admitting doing so. And that is a real problem, because it is not as if the words of Mr. Chen are not just as aptly applied to some food companies in the United States — “They will do anything for money.”


[1]Sharon LaFraniere, In China, Fear of Fake Eggs and ‘Recycled’ Buns, N.Y. Times, May 7, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/world/asia/08food.html

 [2]See Huang Shuo, The Recipe of China’s Food Safety Crisis, People’s Daily Online, May 10, 2011, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90780/91345/7375031.html#


 [3]LaFraniere, supra at note 1.

 [4]Stearns, Denis, On (Cr)edibility: Why Food in the United States May Never be Safe (2010). Stanford Law & Policy Review, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2010; Seattle University School of Law Research Paper No. 11-06. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1763422 

 [5]Id. at 102.

  • Doc Mudd

    Oh, come, come now. Everything will be alright, just fine.
    Most of the Chinese producers are small, local operations…
    “China’s explosive growth has spawned nearly half a million food producers, the authorities say, and four-fifths of them employ 10 or fewer workers, making oversight difficult.”
    Senator Tester, here in the U.S. made us understand small food operatins require no oversight. They have “more eyeballs to the acre”, he explains. What can possibly go wrong?
    Besides, these small local operations and cottage industries cannot afford food safety precautions. They already have operating expenses enough; you don’t think ingredients like melamine, plaster and donkey hides come free, do you?
    Like their counterparts here in the U.S., the exciting and wonderful small local food producers of China recognize only laissez-faire and caveat emptor as size-appropriate policies. Any intervention would stifle their creativity, lessen their profits and ultimately bring the economies of China, U.S. and the planet to their knees.
    Let the ungrateful Chen complain about his steamed bun. Who cares about him. He should have looked his baker in the eye, gotten to know the baker, gotten to know the food. Then he would be properly appreciative. It’s the old man’s own fault – he has a bad attitude.
    “It was much pleasanter at home, when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits.”
    –Alice (in Wonderland)

  • Melissa Riley

    I am a Food Science and Nutrition senior at the University of Minnesota, and one of the most frightening lesson I have learned is that profitability really does usurp consumer safety. Take for example, the battle regarding caramel coloring. The ABA, along with several other representatives of the food industry, are essentially waging war to keep using a chemical dye, simply because it’s more lucrative than using natural and alternative coloring. They argue that cancer in rodents is no reason to remove the chemical, which should horrify us. Consumer safety really is not the a priority of those who create and prepare the products we buy, it’s all about money, and the all-important bottom line.

  • Death in the Pot

    Trusting the seller by sniffing the food, hand-holding and looking into the eye. Very funny. May be in the time of Adam Smith when many lived in a de-industrialized countryside and intimately knew the seller. And even then… A quote about the product safety situation around “good ‘ol days” laissez-faire 1820’s:
    So inextricably are we all immersed in this mighty labyrinth of fraud that even the vendors of poison themselves are forced, by a sort of retributive justice, to swallow it in their turn.
    Thus the apothecary, who sells the poisonous ingredients to the brewer, chuckles over his roguery and swallows his own drugs in his daily copious exhibitions of brown stout. The brewer, in his turn, is poisoned by the baker, the wine-merchant and the grocer.
    Frederick Accum

  • Carlo Ferri

    Hi all,
    I am an Italian importer of wines in Beijing. I start now my company and even if you have real good wine bottled and imported from Italy here may people think it’s artificial.
    Everything in China look not real……