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AmCham China’s “Expanding the Conversation” series kicked off with close to 100 members and friends discussing how food safety concerns cut across global borders, and exploring ways for the US-China business community to address the industry’s many pressing issues together. Participants in this interactive dialogue were also treated to a tour of the Mars Global Food Safety Center in Huairou on the outskirts of Beijing.

Pressing challenges, shared solutions

Among the issues discussed during the workshop was the fact that the food supply chain and safety is constantly evolving due to a variety of issues, including environmental challenges, productivity, use of technology, and public risks such as pathogen and e-commerce for quality control and management.

For example, Owen Ma (pictured above), Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Cargill China, spoke about his company’s supply chain operations. With 47 years of history in China, the firm employs thousands of employees in China across 50 locations, and Ma outlined the food chain in various areas in which Cargill works, highlighting the steps it takes to ensure food safety standards, as well as the internal and external measures used to build a strong food safety culture.

Meanwhile, Abigail Stevenson (pictured below), Global Food Safety Center Director at Mars, spoke about greater consumer distrust of the food business, increased regulation, and other, newer challenges to the industry such as additional pathogens or limits to detection. Some of the new technologies used at the Mars food safety center, which opened in 2015, include increased use of data as well as genome sequencing technology that allows scientists to identify abnormal signals in the food chain before they become too large. She also explained that through a combination of research, training, and partnerships, Mars has selected mycotoxin risk management, microbial risk management, and food integrity as the three main goals to focus on over the next 10 years.

Communication between stakeholders

But perhaps the most important message from the collaborative workshop was the fact that communication with key stakeholders across all relevant areas is essential – both internally to food manufacturers and with external stakeholders, including regulators, researchers and scientists, and even the media, who can be responsible for driving balanced messages on risks or crises when it comes to food quality and supply to the public.

That was a key takeaway from Mdm. Bai Lu (白露), Deputy Director General of the Import and Export Food Safety Bureau at the General Administration of Customs (中华人民共和国海关总署进出口食品安全局副局长) (pictured below), who explained that food safety issues are highly pertinent to the people of China, and therefore are a top priority for the Chinese government. She then explained how her bureau lays out what it expects from foreign food and beverage companies, saying that the industry can only develop and grow if all sides cooperate. Mdm. Bai also thanked AmCham China for the role it plays as a bridge between member companies and the government.

“Unsafe food knows no borders”

Dr. Stevenson echoed Mdm. Bai’s comments by stressing the need for collaboration when it comes to food safety, partnering with others in the food safety chain to drive higher standards. Stevenson said Mars sees the future of the world centering around Asia and China long into the future, a large part of the reason why the firm’s global food safety center was set up in China. By 2050, the world will need to produce 50% more food to feed a population of 9 billion, while also drastically reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment, and it will be critical for all sides to work together to address this growing need.

This approach towards shared responsibility inevitably calls for international governance and like-minded people to work together, as different stakeholders play different – yet critical – roles at different stages in the food supply chain. Frank Whitaker, Ministerial Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy in China, spoke about the critical nature of the US-China relationship, especially during times of tension, highlighting the need for more dialogue between the two sides. Introducing colleagues from the Embassy’s Public Affairs Section and the US Food and Drug Administration, Whitaker spoke about the importance of creating spaces where the two sides can come together and discuss issues of mutual interest and benefit. On a similar note, AmCham President Alan Beebe had earlier begun proceedings by speaking about the importance of food industry safety standards, and the necessity of sharing best practices from both the US and China, in a bid to see what can work best in each country.

Another factor that emerged from the day’s discussions was the fact that successful management of food safety and the supply chain must harness the power of science and research. In terms of difficulties facing the wider US-China food safety community in particular, Jenny Chen Kilkelly, Senior Director for Compliance at Walmart China, stressed the importance of a universal food safety standard that is both equal and fair. Guangtao Zhang, Global Head of Food Safety Research at Mars Global Food Safety Center, advocated a science-based approach, while Wenjing Cao, Partner of Food Supply and Integrity Services at PwC, said that crop farms, live farms, manufacturing companies, and restaurants are highly fragmented in China compared to the US, and that those entities are facing different food safety challenges as a result. She explained that this was also a factor in the differences in food quality.

Transparency key to public trust

That was just one of many issues raised that the community must work together to solve. During a panel discussion, which was moderated by Henri Tan, AmCham China Senior Director of Member Operations, Dr Zhang outlined the risks involved in source tracking, pointing out that however well a product is processed once it’s inside the company can be irrelevant if there is a fault at source, stressing the need to collect real-time data at the farm level. Wenjing then spoke that PwC’s mission is to build trust in the society and solve important problems, , adding that China regulators has issued a very strict Food Safety Law years ago. Consumers cares more about food safety.  Manafacturers will be awarded for their high quality products. We are all working together to build food trust in China society.

Chen Kilkelly also outlined the internal procedures her company uses, including risk assessment, supplier requirements, and the food fraud testing program which uses Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology in China, even though it is not yet officially required as a testing standard here. She also outlined how Walmart’s focuses on cold chain logistics, last mile food safety, and the company’s “High Five” when it comes to food safety: i) Be clean, be healthy; ii) Keep it cold, keep it hot; iii) Don’t cross contaminate; iv) Wash, rinse, sanitize & be organized; v) Cook it and chill it.

Food safety center tour

Before the day ended, Dr Zhang from Mars then led participants on a fascinating tour of the food safety center, explaining all the latest technologies employed in the quest for higher food safety standards.

However, all present agreed that this is just the start of an important conversation that must continue. Fortunately, there is an abundance of platforms created to encourage sharing, as raised by several participants. But with companies in the food and beverage industry sitting on invaluable production and consumer data that can be further leveraged using the latest technologies, it is essential that all sides come together to share that data, swap insights, and implement best practices – both in China and globally – for the advancement of humanity.

AmCham China’s year-long “Expanding the Conversation” series has been launched in conjunction with the US State Department and will host monthly exchange programs designed to promote interactions between the American and Chinese communities. The series will continue in late March with a focus on education, titled “Educating Students for the Future with a Global Mindset”.

For more information, please contact Evan Schmitt, Program Manager, at eschmitt@amchamchina.org. To become part of AmCham China’s Food & Beverage Forum, one of our largest sector-based working groups representing American companies in China, please contact Jenny Chen, Forum Manager, at jchen@amchamchina.org.