Time Out talks to Xie Minqiang, deputy director-general of the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration and CPC Committee member, about the challenges of food safety in the city.
In 2009, as food safety scandals in China reached fever pitch, the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration (SHFDA) launched a revised restaurant supervision system which evaluates restaurants on a points system based on a long list of requirements from kitchen layout to hygiene and food safety to bookkeeping records. The results are translated into those happy, neutral and sad face signs you often see at restaurants around town. The SHFDA evaluations for over 50,000 restaurants are also posted publicly on their website. We spoke to SHFDA deputy director-general Xie Minqiang for the facts behind the faces.
Why did the SHFDA implement this new restaurant system?
In 2009, the SHFDA implemented this public supervision system for restaurants to inform the public of official evaluations in an accessible way. This system evaluates restaurants in terms of dining safety using a comprehensive, scientific and measurable method. The purpose is to urge food and beverage institutions to strictly fulfill their responsibilities in maintaining food safety, to expand government supervision to better protect and inform consumers, and to advocate safe dining.
Has the new inspection system helped to improve food safety?
The supervision system is one of the most effective measures of the SHFDA. Since we first implemented the scheme, food safety in Shanghai has improved. Improvements are seen in the reinforcement of enterprises’ self-discipline in regulating production and safe dining management. It has pushed restaurants to transform their previously passive attitude into more positive and active management which is more focused and scientific. The system has helped create a positive atmosphere of engaging the whole society into the food industry supervision system and guaranteeing the consumer’s right to know and to choose.
What are the biggest food safety challenges for restaurants in Shanghai?
The major safety problems and hidden troubles in Shanghai restaurants include these four issues: some restaurants don’t maintain complete bookkeeping for their procurement or financial accounting. Secondly, some small eateries have dirty working and food processing environments. Thirdly, the workforce in the F&B industry is often poorly educated and so they lack knowledge about food safety and food processing regulations. Finally, some restaurant owners hope to rely on their luck to try to escape supervision.
What percentage of restaurants have happy face evaluations?
The positive results of the inspection system can be observed in the year on year improvements. By the end of last year, the percentage of restaurants with ‘smiley face’, ‘neutral face’ and ‘sad face’ results was 22.32 per cent, 68.66 per cent and 9.02 per cent respectively. Compared to the previous year, the percentage of smiley face restaurants rose 4 per cent while restaurants with neutral and sad faces declined 2 per cent. Overall, restaurants in Shanghai are improving.
Does the SHFDA inform restaurants beforehand about their visits? How many inspectors are there?
SHFDA conducts unannounced visits to evaluate restaurants. They are not informed beforehand. By the end of 2011, Shanghai had a total of 933 F&B inspectors. There are around 700 F&B units being inspected in Shanghai every day.
How are poorly performing restaurants charged?
When discovering restaurants operating against regulations and laws, the SHFDA will send a ‘supervising suggestion letter’ or ‘correction notice’ or arrange a meeting with the responsible people. Thus the businesses are urged to make improvements and corrections. If any illegal operations are discovered, SHFDA will take legal measures according to the laws on food safety, and penalties will be given to guilty parties. If the SHFDA discovers a crime, it will transfer the case to judicial authorities.
If a restaurant receives a poor evaluation, can they request a re-inspection?
This system is aimed at encouraging improvement, and urging correction for the low-performing units. In this way, once a restaurant with low ranking has made improvements, they can appeal for a re-evaluation. If they’ve achieved a higher level of safety, the SHFDA will adjust their ranking and will also inform the public.
Why do some small, old outlets lack the happy/sad face signs? Are these places not required to abide by the same SHFDA regulations?
The inspection system is now only applied to restaurants with a food and beverage business permit. The types of restaurants you mention may not be in a commercial building, or their sanitation and environment can’t reach the standard to be granted a food and beverage business permit. In such cases, these restaurants are not inspected. Every food and beverage operation or individual should abide by the law. Admittedly, there are differences in management style, business scale and facilities when it comes to different businesses. But the problem of F&B units without certificates has received special attention from the government, and relative departments have already taken action.
Do you think diners should only eat in restaurants that have received a smiley face evaluation?
From the perspective of protecting the right of consumers, we hope consumers will dine in restaurants with proper certificates, especially restaurants with smiley faces.