Not all food-related scandals are 'food safety issues' in China

Ahead of World Health Day which falls on 7 April 2015, the birthday of the World Health Organization, Charles Shen of Weber Shandwick takes the opportunity to clarify the definition of food safety--and the part that public affairs staff in a food company can play.

Charles Shen, executive vice president, Weber Shandwick China operations
Charles Shen, executive vice president, Weber Shandwick China operations

Food safety and security has become the top priority of the Chinese government and the top concern of the general public for good reasons. Both China’s reputation and exports have suffered significantly as a result of the widespread food scandals including those involving multinational food companies.

Apart from asking why renowned foreign brands with state-of-the-art technologies and standard operating processes (SOPs) have started to fail in China, we should, however, also start asking ourselves the question of "what is food safety?"

Firstly, not all food-related cases are default "food safety issues", according to WHO's definition. Also according to Dr Chen Junshi, China’s top food expert and nutritionist, a "food safety issue" is one that results in disease and death.

By this definition, many of the food-related cases in China not "food safety issues". The reason why we have been labeling ourselves as a hazardous country plagued with "food safety issues" is to a large extent due to the lack of knowledge on the local media's side and the ignorance on the government's side.

In addition, sometimes it is because of the differences in PR standards and practices between China and the rest of the world. Under these circumstances, what should communications/public affairs/government relations staff in a food company do? Here are my recommendations:

  • Consumer/media education is a must and should become an industry priority
  • House cleaning to ensure internal processes and procedures are in full alignment with govenment regulations
  • Government engagement to effect policy change once you have identified the differences between corporate and governmental standards and processes in China
  • Crisis preparedness to identify potential risks and develop plan to address them
  • If a crisis breaks out, activate proactive crisis management: stay calm, apologise if needed, timely sharing of the investigation results (best to be in alignment with gov’t)
  • Under a censorship environment, develop your owned media, i.e. website, Weibo and Wechat for communications
  • Refute the government's and media's claims if needed, again under the rule of law principle


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