Nationally unified dairy product safety standards will be announced in the later half of 2009, after melamine-tainted milk killed six infants and sickened about 30,000 others last year, a senior official said yesterday.
"According to the recently passed Food Safety Law, the Ministry of Health will clean up current food standards to reduce loopholes and contradictions," Deputy Health Minister Chen Xiaohong told a press conference organized by the State Council Information Office.
He said the ministry, working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Standardization Administration, had started cleaning up and revising dairy product standards. The whole process would end in the second half of this year, he said without elaborating.
In addition to dairy products, unified standards for pesticides, veterinary medicine residues and food additives are also urgently needed, Chen said, adding the ministry is planning to form a national food safety standardization committee.
Currently, China uses two sets of compulsory national food standards - one for food hygiene, issued by the Ministry of Health, and the other for food quality, issued by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ).
These two sets of standards sometimes contradict each other, causing confusion among both supervisors and producers, Zhang Yongjian, executive director of the research center for the development and regulation of the food and drug industry with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.
Dried daylily had been a case in point in 2004. The food hygiene standards had banned food preservative sodium sulfite's use in dried daylilies, while the food quality standards had allowed it. The difference created great confusion, and the case was not resolved until Premier Wen Jiabao intervened.
National Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety senior researcher Chen Junshi said the unification of standards would be a progressive improvement to the Food Safety Law.
But he said the unification process would be very difficult, because "it affects the interests of some government departments, (and) no department is willing to give up power."
In addition, he pointed out China has about 200 million farmers and 500,000 food producers.
"Such a scattered production model is the fundamental reason that there have been so many food safety incidents," he said.
Director of the Agriculture Ministry's agro-food safety supervision department Ma Aiguo yesterday acknowledged the difficulties of monitoring farming operations but said the country's agriculture is "safe and reliable".
"Given the scattered distribution of agricultural production in our country and the backward production mode, we are facing great pressure to ensure agricultural products' quality and safety," Ma said.
"It will remain a long-term and arduous task for us."