As soon as melamine contamination of food products was traced to Chinese processors last year, calls were made to limit or even ban imports of Chinese food products into the U.S.. "It’s always the immediate reaction," notes Mike Robach, vice president of food safety and regulatory affairs for Cargill. "But the way we look at it, it’s a global food supply chain. Soon enough there are going to be 50 percent more people in the world, and they’re going to have to eat food that comes from somewhere. A lot of it is going to come from China."
With an eye on China’s enormous potential as a major world food producer, despite problems such as melamine, Cargill has become an important food-safety resource for the Chinese food industry as well as the Chinese government. The company opened an applications research center in Beijing two years ago and has been working with the government in China on reforming its food-safety regulations to become more practical and stringent.
"It’s been a concern to a number of us that operate in China that we don’t want China condemned as a whole when a situation like what happened with melamine arises," Robach told MEATPOULTRY.com, agreeing that Cargill has a self-interest in the reputation of foods and food ingredients produced in China. "Our business is growing over there. We have a fairly large footprint," he said.
"There are good Chinese food plants and there are some bad plants," he continued, noting that food production in China "is still fragmented. There’s an upper tier that really knows what it’s doing, and that’s great. There’s a mid-tier that’s doing an OK job. And there’s a lower tier that doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, and that’s a little concerning."
In an effort to establish more plants in the top tier and fewer in the bottom, Cargill has partnered with General Mills, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart, among other companies, to bring uniformity to food-safety standards and practices in China. Cargill is also a member of Safe Supply of Affordable Food Everywhere, a private-public partnership that aspires to be a global catalyst to protect the world’s food supply chain. SSAFE grew out of discussions shared in 2005 at the Paris headquarters of the World Organization for Animal Health by food company executives and academicians.
While China’s food industry is still behind the western world’s in terms of sophistication and technology, the food economy in China is impressive. Chinese consumers eat 51 percent of all the world’s pork, 33 percent of the world’s rice and 15 percent of the world’s ice cream. "Most of what we produce in our operations in China stays in China," said Robach, adding that Cargill has had interests in China since the 1970s. "What we see now is an emerging middle class throughout Asia, and in fact Chinese food executives see poultry and pork as export opportunities in the future."
In March of last year, Cargill signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government describing food-safety collaborations, and recently Cargill and General Mills hosted a team of Chinese food-safety government officials, business executives and academicians on a world tour of food-safety organizations and agencies; the group also visited some food plants. Stops included a two-week training at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s offices in Rome, Italy; USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, the American Meat Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C.; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga.; and the Minnesota state departments of agriculture and health.
"What we wanted to emphasize was the interaction of government regulation and public health," Robach commented to MEATPOULTRY.com. "The Chinese officials on the tour were surprised, I think, by the proactive nature of the private sector. They saw companies and industries taking ownership of food safety. In China, the government tells you what to do. No one is yet stepping forward to make food safety part of their normal operations when they don’t have to."
He said the tour purposely did not include top Chinese executives and leaders. "Our idea was to plant the seeds with emerging leaders, with the people who will be running China’s food plants tomorrow. We also sought to set up training programs at the universities so that there’s a new group of food-safety scientists and experts emerging that can help the industry."
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