On December 8, 2020, the Supreme People’s Court issued its Interpretation on Issues Concerning the Application of Law in Food Safety Civil Disputes (I) (the “Interpretation”). The Interpretation contains 14 articles and addresses the determination of the entities responsible for food safety, the implementation of the parties to be held liable for compensation of damages, as well as related litigation procedures. The Interpretation came into effect on January 1, 2021. This article summarizes several key issues in the Interpretation.
I. The responsible entities are clarified. Article 1 of the Interpretation provides that if, in response to a complaint filed by a consumer who is seeking compensation from the food producer or operator for injury caused by food that does not comply with the food safety standards, the producer or operator who is sued claims immunity on the ground that the other producer or operator should be held liable, the people’s court shall not uphold such defense. The article aims to clarify the first liability system to prevent the producers and operators from shifting the blame to each other. In addition, Article 4 of the Interpretation also clarifies the liability of a transportation carrier that provides passengers with food that does not meet food safety standards. If the passengers claim that the carrier should be liable for compensation as a food producer or operator, the people’s court shall uphold the claim, and if the carrier denies its liability on the ground that it is not the producer or operator of the food or that the food was provided free of charge, the people’s court shall not uphold such defense.
II. The liability of an e-commerce platform is clarified. Article 3 of the Interpretation provides that if the failure of the e-commerce operator to register the real names of the food operators on the platform, review their licenses, or otherwise fail to report or stop online transaction services result in harm to the rights and interests of the consumers, and the consumers are seeking joint and several liability of the e-commerce platform operator and the food operator, the people’s court shall uphold the claim.
III. The liability of a proprietary or misleadingly proprietary e-commerce platform is clarified. Online shopping has become a mainstream form of consumption in today’s society, and some shopping platforms not only provide platform services but also engage in its own proprietary business operations. Article 2 of the Interpretation stipulates rules on proprietary business operations by e-commerce platforms. When the food sold by an e-commerce platform operator through its own proprietary business, or a proprietary business that is not indicated as such, fails to meet food safety standards, and the consumer is seeking damages against the e-commerce platform operator as a food operator, the people’s court shall uphold the claim. If the e-commerce platform operator is not substantially engaged in proprietary business operations but nevertheless labels itself to consumers as a proprietary business operator in a sufficiently misleading manner, and the consumers are seeking damages against the e-commerce platform operator as a food operator, the people’s court shall uphold the claim.
IV. The liability of imported food operators is clarified. If the imported food as stipulated under Article 12 of the Interpretation does not meet the national food safety standards or the provisionally applicable standards decided by the health administrative department of the State Council, and the consumers are seeking damages against the distributors or importers, should the distributors and importers argue that the imported food meets the food safety standards of the exporting country or has passed inspection by China’s import-export inspection institutions, the people’s court shall reject such arguments.
V. The circumstances under which an operator is presumed to act “knowingly” are stipulated. Article 6 of the Interpretation specifically lists the circumstances under Article 148 of the Food Safety Law concerning consumer claims of acting “knowingly” , including: (1) sale of the food past its labeled shelf life; (2) failure to disclose the lawful import source of the food sold; (3) the food was purchased at a clearly unreasonably low price without justification; (4) failure to inspect incoming goods as required by law; (5) false labeling, alteration of food production date and lot number, etc.; (6) transfer, concealment, illegal destruction of food purchase and sale records or deliberately providing false information; and (7) other circumstances where “knowingly” can be determined.
VI. The liability for prepackaged food labels, which was not regulated, is now clarified. Article 11 of the Interpretation provides that when a producer or operator fails to specify the name and address of the producer, the composition or the list of ingredients, or to clearly label the production date and shell life on prepackaged foods, and the consumers are seeking punitive damages against the producer or operator, the people’s court shall uphold such claim. However, this does not apply if laws, administrative regulations, or national food safety standards have already stipulated otherwise with respect to labeling.