Outsource Power, Import Safety? Challenges and Opportunities of the U.S.-China Food Safety Regulatory Cooperation

Ching-Fu Lin


The United States has a high stake in China’s serious food safety problem, as food products of Chinese origin have dominated the U.S. food market in numerous areas and continue to grow. The conclusion of the U.S.-China Food Safety Agreement (“the Agreement”) has allowed FDA to strengthen regulatory cooperation with its Chinese counterpart in various aspects. The Agreement also paves the way for the implementation of the new regulatory tools incorporated in FSMA, especially in the cross-border context. However, both the Agreement and FSMA have certain crucial limitations that may create future hurdles to effective implementation in the U.S.-China cooperation. This paper therefore endeavors to first examine China’s governance challenges over food safety, with a focus on the 2009 Food Safety Law, the 2015 Amendment, and the fundamental problem of “thin” rule of law. This paper moves to analyze the U.S.-China Food Safety Agreement, reviewing the agreement’s strengths and weaknesses. It further assesses FSMA’s innovative institutional design to regulate imported food products and its limitations. However, both the U.S.-China Food Safety Agreement and FSMA arguably create a regulatory dilemma for FDA when addressing imported food safety, due to structural mismatch between the broad scope of power granted to FDA and the long chain of power outsourcing to governments or private companies as primary “regulators.” Neither the Agreement nor FSMA give FDA adequate capacity to closely oversee such “agents” along the chain of power outsourcing. Framing the U.S.-China food safety cooperation as a multilayer structure that “outsources power” to “import safety,” this paper concludes by stressing the need for a robust accountability and effective mechanism for U.S.-China food safety cooperation.