Scientists at UC Davis have signed a five-year agreement to collaborate with China on food safety.
The agreement, signed Wednesday in China by U.S and Chinese officials, brings together UC Davis and China’s Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University, which is funded by the Chinese government. The schools will work together to propose solutions for current problems in food safety in China at every point along its food chain, and will seek to improve tracing of food products.
The results could affect food safety worldwide, said Roger Beachy, director of the World Food Center.
It is the first major effort of the recently formed World Food Center at UC Davis and the UC Global Food Initiative.
UC Davis will spearhead the effort, which will expand to include other universities in the U.S. and China, said Beachy.
Beachy said highly publicized food safety lapses in China have made the issue an urgent one for the government. “The Chinese government is quite worried about this because it has eroded the Chinese people’s confidence in food from China,” Beachy said.
Chinese meat supplier Shanghai Husi Food Co., which supplies meat to Starbucks, McDonald’s and Burger King in China, recently was shut down after a televised segment showed workers mishandling meat and using it past its expiration date.
In 2008, a dairy product scandal in China erupted after milk adulterated with the chemical melamine made 294,000 ill and led to the deaths of six infants. Since then, Chinese customers have been buying large quantities of formula from Europe to avoid using the domestic variety.
The food safety agreement initially stems from work in China by Zhongli Pan, a UC Davis professor in biological and agricultural engineering. “UC Davis is well known in agriculture and food safety-related research, and at the same time China has a need for food safety, not only for domestic consumption but for international trade,” said Pan.
“In general, Chinese food traceability is an issue,” said Pan. “So, there is a need and desire to develop technology that can trace all the product – from production to table.”
The collaborative effort will be almost completely funded by the Chinese Ministry of Science, said Beachy. He said he wasn’t sure how much the venture would cost.
UC Davis will be charged with choosing a director for the collaboration, though the Chinese will have to jointly approve the hire.
The World Food Center will pay for half of the director’s salary and the Chinese will pay the other half, Beachy said.
Students from UC Davis and China will be offered opportunities to study in each other’s countries.
Last year, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi visited China and was approached by food safety researchers about a collaboration. “The Chinese government wants to get it right, and they want to work with the best university and someone they trust,” Beachy said.
Dairy safety is of high importance in China, said Beachy. “They’re also interested in produce safety, from microbial contamination as well as chemical residues.”
In particular, the Chinese are very interested in increasing the traceability of food. The issue is a crucial one for the Chinese given that the country has so many small farmers. “This is a problem when you have more than 220 million small holder farmers – it becomes a logistical problem just tracing it all,” Beachy said.
Most of those farmers own less than 5 acres of land, Beachy said. Tracing their products becomes even more difficult given that growers send them to collectives.
The collaboration will benefit UC Davis as it accesses cutting-edge technology China is developing on tracing the origin of food.
Beachy said the collaboration will expose the Chinese to what is grown on California farms, which may lead to more of the state’s food being sold in China.
Editors note : Previous versions of this story quoted Zhongli Pan as saying there was a need and desire to develop technology that can treat all food products. The story should have said that there was a desire to trace all food products.
Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.