A strawberry growers' association in Changfeng county, Anhui province, along with similar associations, is reportedly planning to file a lawsuit against China Central Television, because its report has caused huge losses to the strawberry industry. In Changfeng alone, farmers have suffered a loss of more than 150 million yuan ($24.17 million).
According to the CCTV report, eight samples of strawberries purchased randomly in Beijing contained excessive amounts of acetochlor, a herbicide that can be carcinogenic if consumed in large amounts.
Agricultural experts, however, say herbicides like acetochlor are hardly used by in China's strawberry fields. Chinese farmers generally grow strawberries using the plasticulture system: they form raised beds, fumigate and cover them with plastic sheets to prevent weed growth, and plant the plants through holes punched in the covering with irrigation tubes running underneath. The absence of weeds minimizes the use of herbicides.
After the CCTV report, agricultural authorities in Beijing and major strawberry growing provinces such as Shandong, Hebei, Liaoning and Zhejiang conducted several tests on random samples of the fruit but found no acetochlor. Despite these tests, however, strawberry sales in many areas have fallen sharply causing huge losses to farmers.
Food safety scandals cause instant public panic and a sharp decline in the consumption of the food in question. Since many food safety scandals have been exposed in recent years, Chinese consumers tend to believe a report if it has even the faintest hint of a food scandal. People have forgotten that experts have to conduct tests before it can be said for sure whether or not a food product is harmful.
It is important that media outlets desist from publishing reports on food scandals without scientific proof, because being unable to tell safe from unsafe food, consumers avoid all "doubtful" food products.
CCTV journalists bought strawberries at random in Beijing to select the samples. And there is no way to prove their test results were reliable. The onus is thus on media outlets to furnish accurate information and invite third-party agencies to carry out tests before publishing a report on a food scandal.
Besides, industry associations can promote entire industrial chains by providing detailed information to the public and making their operations more transparent. Making all possible information public will help food growers and producers in the long run because people would be in a position to judge news reports in the light of facts.
After the agriculture sector in Europe suffered many severe blows because of food safety scandals, governments promoted "transparent agriculture" to win back public trust. Production factories were opened to consumers' representatives and the media to dispel people's doubts about food safety. After all, making the production process transparent allows consumers to understand production and clear their misunderstandings.
More important, although many officials have tried their best to dispel rumors about herbicides in strawberries, consumers don't trust them for lack of reviews and tests conducted by third parties, and hence the need for credible third-party organizations to win back public trust.
Also, China's agriculture sector is badly in need of crop insurance to reduce the loss suffered by farmers, who, in turn, should realize that growing strawberries is risky business. It is difficult to store strawberries, because they have to be consumed within a few days of harvesting. So, even a slight fluctuation in the industry will cause great loss to farmers.
The need is also to increase the diversity of products and develop brands. China's agriculture lacks brands. As a result, even a small food safety scandal affects the entire industry. Diversity of products and consumers' brand loyalty can prevent such scenarios.