Whoa. A food safety whistleblower reward program … in China? The ongoing food crisis in the country has finally moved the government to compensate those who provide information on wrongdoing in the industry. The notion of paying individuals who take the bold step to expose corruption and abuse, instead of antagonizing them (which is disconcertingly common), is significant. Before we shower China with praise, however, we should consider what we know about the country’s treatment of whistleblowers.

According to Indian Express, whistleblower protection is classified as a “fundamental right” in China’s constitution, enabling citizens to make complaints without being suppressed or retaliated against. That’s laughable, considering the fact that whistleblowers in China have undergone everything from the death penalty, jail time, exile, or even psychiatric treatment to have their challenges kept out of the public sphere.

Threatening harsh punishment seems to be China’s method of choice in thwarting a tainted public image. The massive and seemingly endless food scandals (toxic cooking oil here … exploding watermelons there) have certainly spurred a punishing frenzy. Yet it hasn’t seemed to matter which side the government uses as an example -- the perpetrators of food safety violations or individuals calling them out. Zhao Lianhai, whose son fell ill from milk contaminated with melamine in 2008, was sentenced to jail for two-and-a-half years after campaigning for victim compensation. He was finally granted medical parole after many wrote to the Chinese government in protest. Last week, on the other hand, one man received a “suspended death sentence,” or essentially life in prison, for his involvement in producing and selling pork from hogs that were fed clenbuterol -- a poisonous chemical outlawed in China.

Now the Chinese government is seeking food industry whistleblowers who will go through a coordinated process to help identify problems. Officials will hand out cash rewards (how much is unclear) to these truth-tellers, as long as a follow-up investigation proves their claims are accurate. Xinhua writes:
The commission said higher rewards will be offered to those who provide information on the underground businesses involved in producing, selling or use of illegal additives or making fake and inferior food products.

A financial incentive for food safety whistleblowers is something we are still lacking here in the U.S. Many whistleblowers in the U.S. food and agriculture sectors often have more incentive to keep quiet than risk their livelihoods by speaking the truth. A whistleblower protection provision affecting the FDA was included in the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act, but that still leaves out a large part of the food chain, including meat and poultry industry workers under USDA.

But the fact that China aims to dedicate whistleblower funds via “government departments at all levels,” not to mention acknowledge the risk whistleblowers face, remains eyebrow-raising. From Reuters:
Those who work for people or companies which adulterate food products are especially encouraged to participate, the report said.

Governments must also make sure they protect the identities of the tipsters to prevent "revenge attacks", and will punish those who slander others with false reports or provide false information to get the rewards, Xinhua added.
Retaliation is a justified fear, no question. We know conflicting interests exist in China (as well as here in the states) that prevent adequate industry regulation, including government inspectors taking bribes. In a country where whistleblowers have lacked a safe space, it will be good to see their importance validated and voices heard, if properly protected.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.