Group Standards: An Often Overlooked Regulatory Pathway to Export Food to China
“What food standard do you rely on to legally export your food to China?” This is probably the first question that you will likely encounter when exporting and selling food in China. Why is it so important to know the answer to this question? Generally speaking, standards are typically used as a type of “compliance checklist” by the authority, and if you don’t know which standard the authority will rely on, then you are essentially blindly exporting a product to China, hoping your product will comply with the standard used by the authority. The challenge we see is that, oftentimes, companies struggle to identify the applicable standard(s) for their foods or, worse, no applicable standard exists. This article focuses on one type of food standard in China, i.e., the Group Standard. This is a particularly useful standard category when there is no existing standard for exported food. Let’s take a closer look.
Group Standards were first recognized under Chinese law via the amendment of the Law on Standardization in 2017. It classifies all standards into five categories: National Standards, Industry Standards, Local Standards, Group Standards, and Company Standards. According to Article 3 of the Administrative Rules for Group Standards, a “Group Standard” is a standard that is jointly developed by relevant market participants further coordinated by a lawfully-established Chinese social organization for the purpose of satisfying market and innovation needs. That is to say, the development of a Group Standard is an efficient and transparent way for industry stakeholders to come together and develop new standards for certain products that are not yet subject to existing Chinese standards. Since the introduction of Group Standards by the standardization law, the food industry has been active in developing Group Standards for various foods and food ingredients. Some examples include:
The Chinese National Food Industry Association (CNFIA), on August 31, 2021, published the draft Group Standard for Probiotic Foods,
The Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFST), on August 24, 2021, published the Group Standard for Plant-based Foods,
The Chinese Food Additive and Ingredient Association, on June 2, 2021, published the Group Standard for Classification of Food Ingredients,
The Chinese Beverage Industry Association, on June 16, 2021, solicited comments on the draft Group Standard for Powdered Drinks,
The Chinese Nutrition and Health Food Association, on August 17, 2021, released the draft Group Standard for Fat Powder for Use in Foods for Special Purposes,
The China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, on March 22, 2022, solicited comments on the draft Group Standard for China Vegan Food Standard,
The Chinese Cereals and Oils Association, on April 11, 2022, published the draft Group Standard for High Moisture Plant-based Meat,
The CNFIA, on April 26, 2022, announced its agenda to develop a Group Standard for Soybean-based Plant Meat.
We should note that Group Standards, by nature, are industry-initiated standards and, thus, are voluntary. On the other hand, one should be mindful of Article 92 of the Chinese Food Safety Law (FSL), which requires that imported foods must comply with the Chinese Food Safety National Standards (FSNS). In practice, it can take years to complete an FSNS, so, in the interim, Group Standards can give industry a unique opportunity to develop standards for foods that are not yet subject to FSNS. The Group Standard can address certain hygiene and quality requirements prior to a corresponding FSNS put in place by the authority.
Importantly, if one cannot identify any existing Chinese standard for an imported food, having a Group Standard alone is not sufficient to legally import food into China. For instance, there is not yet an FSNS to rely on to export a plant-based meat product to China, thus, relying on the CIFST’s Group Standard on plant-based meat (see above) as the controlling standard in the absence of an FSNS may result, in accordance with Article 92 of the FSL, in customs rejecting the shipment. Accordingly, in practice, one still needs to identify a national standard in China for the product (even if it is not an FSNS). For example, one may consider the applicability of a more general national standard, such as Quick-frozen Prepared Food (SB/T10379), and CIFST’s Group Standard could be used to supplement and address more specific quality requirements for the plant-based meat.
Finally, we have seen Group Standards be a useful regulatory reference when the authority seeks to create a new FSNS. This is because, as noted above, Group Standards are typically drafted by industry stakeholders who can provide insights and knowledge that may help frame the issues and give the authority some perspectives it would not otherwise consider. Therefore, if you do not see an existing standard specific to your food in China, a Group Standard may be another pathway to consider.
 The standard of Quick-frozen Prepared Food (SB/T10379) may be broadly defined to capture the foods such as plant-based meat. However, it is a general standard and applies to other foods as well. By comparison, the CIFST’s Group Standard is specifically “crafted” for plant-based meat only.