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China's spicy snack fuels heated product safety debate

Beijing moves to establish national standards amid clash with local regulators

The controversy over popular latiao stick snacks is only the latest in a number of disputes over food and product safety. (Photo by Yusuke Hinata)

GUANGZHOU -- A spicy stick snack from Henan Province has for years been a hot seller with young Chinese, but now finds itself at the core of a heated clash between national and local governments over product safety standards.

Made mainly from wheat flour and spicy oil, latiao has an elastic texture and pungent red pepper flavor -- a combination that many find irresistible and that most have something to say about. "Sometimes I only want to eat just one pack but often end up eating two or three," goes a typical comment.

According to many fans of the snack, latiao goes great with beer, and packs of them are often found in purses and travel bags for a quick bite when on the go.

But their popularity has come up against Beijing's move to establish national safety standards for food and industrial products, which often conflict with local regulations. In August, the Health Commission of Henan Province announced that local safety standards for "flavored flour food products" -- namely latiao -- would be abolished as of Oct. 1, adding it will "wait for the development of national standards."

Latiao is made by heating flour under pressure to solidify the powder, then seasoning it with red pepper, salt and sugar. It is a traditional snack in Henan Province, home to a cluster of latiao makers. But it sparked a national controversy after the food safety authority of Shanxi Province in May 2018 declared that the popular Wei Long brand of latiao did not meet safety standards.

This was followed by a flurry of inspections of the brand in other parts of the country, including Guizhou and Zhejiang provinces. After more fails, the government of Hubei Province suspended sale of the product in the province.

Many of the decisions were based on Wei Long's use of fairly common food additives approved for use in Henan Province but which other locales thought as questionable for human consumption.

This ensuing debate on whether Wei Long latiao should be banned raged in social media. Some supported the measure to ensure food safety, while others voiced skepticism, saying they had been eating Wei Long's product for years without any health issues. Other suggested that the bans smacked of regional protectionism and harassment against the company.

Many brands of latiao are available, but some have been accused of employing less-than-sanitary manufacturing methods and improperly using additives. (Photo by Yusuke Hinata)

Adding fuel to the fire, a popular TV show aired annually on March 15 -- World Consumer Rights Day -- singled out the snack for its famous "name-and-shame" report of the year. The program, titled "315 Gala," is known for exposing problems with companies' services and products, often forcing the unwitting targets to apologize for their transgressions.

This year, the show's signature undercover reporting criticized unsanitary manufacturing conditions and questionable use of additives at latiao factories in Henan and Hunan provinces.

After the show, viewers directed their ire at both manufacturers and regulators. As more consumers came to regard latiao as unsanitary junk food, the government of Henan Province decided to scrap its food safety standards and await guidance from the national government.

The controversy over latiao is only the latest in a rash of disputes over standards concerning food and industrial products in recent years.

In 2014, C&S Paper, a manufacturer of household paper products, faced a fierce consumer backlash when its newly developed moistened tissues were deemed "substandard" by a Beijing consumer association due to its moisture content being higher than the regulatory limit.

Since then, moisturized tissues have become commonplace. But at the time they were fairly unknown, and it is now believed that the overzealous application of health safety standards on a new type of product was unwarranted and extreme.

Other cases that reflect the disconnect between national and local safety standards -- and even between different regions -- include mineral content in bottled water and residual agricultural chemicals in chrysanthemum used to make tea.

The ongoing issues can be traced to China's awakening as an economic power in 1978 when the Deng Xiaoping-led Communist Party launched sweeping economic reforms, which allowed many sectors a great deal more freedom in managing their operations.

This was a radical departure from the old, centrally planned way of doing business. At the same time, Beijing hastily rushed through safety standards to regulate the manufacture of industrial products.

But the old standards have not kept pace with the flood of new goods and changing patterns of consumption. In response, the State Council -- China's chief administrative authority -- introduced a program in 2015 to classify and unify safety standards for industrial products.

The initiative is aimed at eliminating overlapping rules and regulatory inconsistencies. Yu Xinli, then-vice administrator at the Standardization Administration of China that started the 2015 reforms, said the current system was cobbled together at a time when the country was frantically trying to remake its moribund, state-controlled industries.

The new policy called for updating and unifying standards for related products in 2015-16, shifting to new standards in 2017-18, then tweaking the entire national safety standards systems in the 2019-20 period.

Latiao symbolizes the final stage of the reforms. The national government has encouraged public discussion on standards for the snack as it prepares to issue nationwide regulations.

China's safety standards initiative reflects Beijing's desire to raise the quality of the nation's products and services, promoting fair competition among companies in a unified regulatory environment.

It also signals to smaller manufacturers that the days of protection under safety standards set by friendly regional governments are coming to an end.

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