Food safety a work in progress

By He Dan (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-05-07 10:51
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As State redoubles efforts, experts say wide-ranging revisions are necessary

BEIJING - Chinese authorities will take unprecedented efforts to rectify the much-criticized food industry in an effort to prevent new scandals from undermining the public's confidence in the nation's food sector.

The government will continue to overhaul the food industry, concentrating in particular on dairy products, cooking oil, health foods, meat and alcohol this year, said Zhang Yong, director of the executive office of the food safety commission under the State Council, the nation's Cabinet.

"China is in a period when food safety incidents are likely to arise" because the food industry is developing rapidly and many food producers and restaurants run small-scale businesses sometimes haphazardly, Zhang told Xinhua News Agency on Thursday.

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Zhang gave pig-raising as an example, saying that China has more than 67 million pig farmers while the number of their counterparts in the United States has dropped to 70,000.

Most Chinese pig farms are small businesses, and they are spread across the country, posing huge supervisory difficulties, he said.

Zhang estimated there are at least 400,000 food manufacturers, more than 2.1 million restaurants, and over 200 million people involved in the farming and fishing industries in China.

"That makes it very difficult for the government departments to supervise food quality and safety," Zhang said.

However, the imperfect supervisory system itself should also be blamed for some food scandals, Zhang said.

A typical case involves tainted bean sprouts in Shenyang, capital of Northeast China's Liaoning province.

According to media reports in April, police seized more than 55 tons of toxic bean sprouts and later shut down 23 processing plants. The bean sprouts, which were soaked in banned additives such as urea and enrofloxacin, were believed to be unsafe to eat and could even lead to cancer.

But the city's four food quality watchdog agencies each denied in a joint meeting that it was their duty to take action, the Beijing-based Legal Daily reported.

The city's industry and commerce authority reportedly argued that the sprouts were seized during the production process and consequently were the responsibility of the local bureau of quality and technical supervision. That agency passed the responsibility to the agricultural bureau, saying that bean sprouts are an unprocessed product. The buck-passing continued when the agricultural department said the sprouts were the responsibility of another department not represented at the meeting.

"At present, food supervision is divided over more than six government agencies, resulting in unclear responsibilities for each," said Zheng Fengtian, deputy dean of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University of China.

China must establish an independent government department to supervise food safety, Zheng told China Daily on Friday.

However, Sang Liwei, a food-safety lawyer in Beijing and a representative of the Global Food Safety Forum, a non-governmental organization, said that consumers must also help the government keep foods safe.

"It's almost a mission impossible for the government to supervise such a huge number of producers and retailers," Sang said.

The authorities can make favorable policies to encourage customers to report violations that make foods unsafe, Sang said.

The State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) and the Ministry of Health have urged tighter supervision of food additives and condiments in restaurants and snack bars, following reports some adding poppy shells and industrial wax to their foods.

By the end of May, the country's restaurants must report detailed information on their ingredients and additives they use to local authorities.

A list of the ingredients and additives must be posted in restaurants for customers to see, the SFDA said.