Consumer Citizen Suits Against Food Safety Violations in China

Project: Research

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Food safety is the issue that concerns Chinese people the most. Food safety incidents frequently dominated newspaper headlines in the past decade: just to name a few, the melamine-tainted baby milk scandal in 2008, the gutter oil scandal in 2010, the lean meat powder scandal in 2011, the cadmium rice scandal in 2013, the expired chicken scandal in 2014, the 40-year-old frozen meat scandal in 2015 and the rotten and worm-infested preschool lunch scandal in 2018. Although Chinese government made the Food Safety Law in 2009 and substantially amended it in 2015 and also promulgated a large volume of food safety regulations at both national and local level, effective food safety regulation has not been achieved due to low compliance and weak public enforcement. However, it is noteworthy that more and more consumers have been engaged in de facto consumer citizen suits against food safety violations and become new grassroots actors in China’s food safety regulatory landscape since the Supreme People’s Court confirmed in 2014 that consumers “buying fakes knowingly” (知假買假) are entitled to both compensatory and punitive damages in food liability litigation. They normally deliberately purchase defective food products to make a cause of action after detecting certain food safety violations of manufactures or business operators and then file an action for punitive damages. They are repeat players and act as private enforcers of food safety law in China. The data from our pilot study show that among 28,634 food liability lawsuits from 2014 to date, 25,115 cases (88%) were filed by repeat-player consumers. However, almost all literature on China’s food safety regulation focuses on business compliance and public enforcement, little discusses the de facto consumer citizen suit against food safety violations. This project aims to fill the gap. Drawing on the datasets to be constructed from court judgments of consumer citizen suits against food safety violations delivered in five years (2014-2018), this project will make use of diverse research methods (including statistical analysis, case study and in-depth interview) to investigate three sets of research questions. First, how the consumer citizen suit against food safety violations operates in China, what are the determinants of successful litigation and what are the roles of the consumer citizen suit in enforcing food safety regulations. Second, how the consumer citizen suit influences the behavior of manufactures and business operators in the food industry in relation to legal compliance and the behavior of public enforcers in China. Third, to what extent the practical restraints weaken the consumer citizen suit functioning as a private enforcement mechanism in China and what are the feasible solutions to solve or mitigate the constraints. This project will generate empirical findings on China’s de facto consumer citizen suit regime against food safety violations and provide socio-legal analysis of the empirical findings. It will present recommendations for making the consumer citizen suit better serve the private enforcement function. It will also shed light on a broader application of the consumer citizen suit than food safety cases in China. 


Project number9042912
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/20 → …