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Rooting out any bad apples

By Tan Yingzi (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-07-27 10:24

For Guo Changjun, 'surprise' visits from food safety inspectors became a basic fact of life long ago.

Guo, who manages an organic farm in Beijing near the Badaling section of the Great Wall, says pressure to increase safety levels has been mounting for years.

"Chinese people care more about their health now and even farmers are reluctant to use chemical pesticides," said Guo, whose farm comes under extreme scrutiny as it is one of the official food suppliers for the Beijing Games.

"The government and our suppliers have been paying a lot more attention to this issue over the past few years," he told China Daily.

In recent months, international alarm bells have sounded over the risks posed by Chinese food in the wake of a number of scandals involving major consumers such as the United States.

Reports of pet food, toothpaste and farmed fish tainted with potentially dangerous chemicals from China have spurred concern about the way food is produced, regulated and monitored in China, especially with the Olympics just around the corner.

As host, Beijing will cater to over 10,000 athletes and more than half a million international visitors from August to September next year. After the Olympic Games wrap up in mid-August, the Paralympics will begin the following month.

To ensure food safety, city and Olympic officials have already implemented strict regulations to whip China's food production and distribution networks into shape.

One of the key measures is to set up an Olympic Food Tracing System, a mechanism to monitor the production, processing, packaging, transportation and distribution of what gets put on the table at Olympic venues and areas.

"The tracing system is a very important part of Beijing's food safety inspection system as it can help control every step in the food-production process," Professor Cai Tongyi said.

Cai serves as a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Food Safety Consulting Committee, which was established in 2005 with 15 experts, roughly half of them drawn from international organizations.

On August 8, the tracing system will be put into practice in both English and Chinese for the 10 Olympic test events in Beijing.

Guo's organic farm is already a part of the ambitious new system, adding traceable bar codes to all of its products that contain information such as when the food was produced, where and by whom.

If any problems are detected, a simple telephone call can get to the root of the matter and swift punishments meted out to any offenders.

To help hundreds of local farmers develop their organic planting skills, Guo's farm has invited experts from the Beijing Academy of Agricultural Sciences to run large-scale workshops.

"The Games organizers have very high standards," said Guo. "We have already assigned workers for each planting area, and you won't find any pesticides in any of our vegetables."

According to Cai, some 235 field inspectors are working at 48 farms that will supply the 2008 Olympics, to monitor their use of chemicals. They often spring surprise spot checks to root out any cheats.

During the Games, Guo's farm will provide some 200 tons of organic vegetables to the capital every day.

To make sure every procedure in the food distribution network is controlled, each van that leaves the farm will have a named driver, a global positioning system (GPS), a specially designed route and a time schedule.

During the drive, the temperature and humidity of the food storage area will also be supervised to ensure safety levels are met.

The products will be sent to an Olympic Food Distribution Center and then to the Olympic Village, where round-the-clock guards will be on duty in the kitchens and food storage areas will be under video surveillance.

White mice will also be used to test the food prepared for the athletes. When an athlete eats at the Olympic Village canteen, their identification card will be able to read and record the information about their chosen meal, noting down exactly where and when they bought it.

If any food poisoning occurs, the tracing system can take effect in minutes.

"In about 10 minutes, we can find out the source of the tainted food and remove it from the shelves," said Cai.

But he is still concerned about food safety in the rest of the city.

"Beijing is doing quite well in controlling the food safety at the Olympic Village and Olympic venues, but it is not easy to manage so many small restaurants and food stands in other parts of the city," he said.

He said that food producers need to be brought to heel to solve this problem on a broader scale.

Since 2006, the government has issued licenses to qualified food producers, focusing on staples like rice, meat and sugar, and food for children and old people.

"Things have improved dramatically over the last few years and they are continuing to do so," said Cai. "The government is genuinely concerned about this issue and is taking it seriously.

"The more people learn about the measures we are taking to safeguard the food, the less they will worry about their trip to China."