In the wake of continual food safety crises in China, the Supreme People’s Court (Court) has called for courts to impose the death sentence for people convicted of food safety violations where those violations have resulted in death(s)2. The notice released in a report by the Xinhua News Agency and posted on the Court’s website insisted that the trial of food safety crimes be ‘intensified’.

The notice also stressed the ‘social concern’ of food safety in China and the need to hold perpetrators accountable. In addition, the Court outlined the need to protect China against corruption associated with food safety regulation. It stated that in instances of bribery, dereliction of duty, abuse of power and favouritism, public officials shall be punished according to law.

This declaration must be seen against the backdrop of concerted efforts by the Chinese Government to gain control of public and media attention, both locally and overseas, captured by major food safety scandals. One recent incident involved the contamination of milk and infant formulas with fatal levels of the toxic chemical melamine. Melamine was added to raw milk to increase the nitrogen content of the milk and, therefore, its apparent protein content in circumstances where water had been added to the raw milk to increase its volume3.

A reported 290,000 children were treated for renal complications and 6 children died as a direct result of the 2008 melamine contamination4. This disaster is one of the most notable in a long line of food safety issues faced by the People’s Republic, which is a global leader in food production, processing and exports.

Following the 2008 crisis and the resulting public outcry, the Chinese government openly pursued criminal prosecutions of the alleged offenders. A number of individuals found responsible for manufacturing and supplying melamine-laced powder and tainted milk products were given lengthy prison sentences. Tian Wenhua, the former chairwoman of Sanlu Group, a large dairy company at the centre of the scandal, was sentenced to life imprisonment for failing to halt production and sale of milk products, even after she became aware of the contamination. Significantly, two men, one convicted of producing and selling melamine-laced powder and the other of selling adulterated milk to Sanlu and other dairy companies, reportedly received the death penalty5. Notably, authorities allowed media to be present in court for some of the trials, although families of children affected by the products were reportedly barred from the same courts6.

The Supreme People’s Court notice is especially interesting given that China has indicated that it intends to reduce its execution rate7, which is reportedly the highest in the world. Clearly a strong judicial stance is required against individuals who breach food safety standards and those regulators who knowingly allow the breaches to occur. However, it remains to be seen if this announcement will have the significant effect that is required to curb the occurrence of food safety violations and establish a regulatory and enforcement structure befitting a growing superpower in the food industry.