Milktest.jpgFood producers are being accused of failing to take action over food contamination and poor quality standards. Oh no, not another food scare story from China. Wrong, this time it is Korea that is in the dock.

A Korean milk producer has had to destroy powdered baby formula that was found to contain dangerous bacteria. Meanwhile, two Korean confectionery companies have had to recall products from the Canadian market because the lacked the appropriate allergy warnings.

Critics argue that Korean food companies still lack a serious commitment to improve their food safety standards.

After being exposed of putting melamine-contaminated cookies and dairy products on Korean shelves, the chief executives of eight local companies announced plans to spend 4bn won (about $3m) to establish a joint testing facility in China to examine the safety of their products manufactured there. More in this Korea Times article.

The take-home from the story is that China does not have the monopoly on lax product safety or quality standards.

Nor does it have the monopoly on unscrupulous businesses that knowingly use sub-standard ingredients or inferior components to boost profits and maybe put consumers at risk. Nevertheless, China is the country that is most often singled out for criticism.

Over the past two years, China has seen millions of domestically produced products pulled from the shelves, including toys, toothpaste, pet food and baby formula.

Because China is now the dominant supplier of so many manufactured goods, it is inevitable that more recalls will affect Made-in-China goods than those sourced elsewhere.

Indeed, some experts argue that China's quality record has improved in recent years, but the improvement is masked by the greater volumes of goods produced now than five years ago.

Lin Zhou, professor of economics at WP Carey business school, argues that Made-in-China product quality is getting better.

The fact that there seem to be more product recalls is probably a reflection of several things: First, we are simply buying more products from China; second, we have higher awareness as consumers concerning product safety; third, nowadays we have higher expectations of Chinese products than we had before.”

Nevertheless, several academics and researchers interviewed in the same article argue that the quality of Chinese goods is pretty poor. Joseph Carter, a professor of supply chain at the WP Carey School, said:

Quality has been an issue in China for decades. The whole supply chain in China doesn't really have the culture of precision manufacturing. Honestly, it's interesting that we would even be surprised at the quality of products coming out of China. Because first off, we don't really source out of China for top quality. We buy it for low cost.”

He argues that western buyers — be they business buyers or end-users — accept mediocre products from China in return for low prices.

And while the west continues to focus obsessively on China's low prices, then Chinese manufacturers have no incentive to buy better-quality components or ingredients or invest in QC procedures and staff.

But the greatest impediment to higher quality in China may be Chinese culture itself. The country's business culture is not one that has ever put a premium on precision, Carter says.

Whether quality is getting better or worse is difficult to judge objectively. But the fact remains that the past couple of years have seen consumers in China and elsewhere become much more concerned about the quality of Made-in-China products, particularly food products.

In a bid to soothe the fears of Chinese consumers, the long-awaited Food Safety Law came into effect lat month. In the last few decades, China has implemented at least 20 food safety laws and 190 relevant regulations, and assigned 35 commissions to supervise the food industry. Yet even with so many regulations and laws, China still lacks effective supervision and enforcement, argues the China Sourcing Blog.

It therefore seems doubtful that the new law, by itself, will sooth the anxieties of Chinese consumers.