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Food safety system needs more bite

Updated: 2012-04-14 15:38

By Cai Hong (China Daily)

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Who would deny the mouth-watering appeal of a deep-pink strawberry ice cream on a hot summer's day or roast duck with wonderfully crispy skin accompanied by cucumber and green onions?

Even early civilizations such as the Romans recognized that people "eat with their eyes". Butter has been colored yellow as far back as the 1300's.

Now almost all packaged foods, even so called "health foods", have additives in them. Today there are nearly 2,000 certified food additives.

But the Ministry of Health thinks a little less color might be good for us, and it proposes making some of our foods plainer but healthier.

A draft proposal posted on the ministry's website on April 6 for public comment, announced that 38 additives, half of which provide color to colorless and "fun" foods, are to be removed from the list of acceptable food additives.

Unlike some banned additives the 38 on the list are not unsafe, they're just unnecessary.

In all, the health authorities have published six blacklists of 80 illegal food additives and a food safety law was introduced in 2009 that requires food producers to be more responsible for the safety of their products.

Yet in recent years there has been a stomach-turning litany of food problems relating to additives - tainted watermelons and pork, toxic milk and dyed buns - all of them scary enough to shake consumers' confidence in the food industry.

Last year the government launched a year-long, nationwide campaign to ban the use of chemicals such as clenbuterol, which produces leaner meat but endangers human health, and pledged to clamp down on the unlawful use of food additives.

But resolved as the government is, these moves will not get to the root of the problem.

China currently has 40 sets of laws and regulations and nearly 300 department rules dealing with food safety. The Food Safety Law the country put into effect on June 1, 2009 covers a wider range of food-related sectors and stricter requirements than the replaced the Food Hygiene Law.

Yet food safety needs more government intrusion into food production and supervision, as non-compliance with the laws is the real problem.

The involvement of so many authorities causes problems of coordination from enactment to enforcement, which enables some food producers to circumvent the laws.

The Ministry of Health seems to be the most important department for the governing of food safety. However, the Ministry of Agriculture, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, the State Administration for Industry and Commence, the State Environmental Protection Administration, the Ministry of Commerce and the State Grain Administration also have jurisdiction over food issues, and/or supervise food producers.

The overlap of so many agencies leads to "blame games" when problems arise. The State Food and Drug Administration was instituted in 2003, with the mandate, among other things, to integrate the administration and supervision of food safety, coordinate and organize investigation and impose penalties for serious violations of the law. However, the administration has no teeth and it has to coordinate among several ministries that have a higher administrative rank.

To address the regulatory problems, where several organs have the power to administrate the production and sale of food, the State Council established the Food Safety Commission in 2010.

Headed by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, the high-profile group is supposed to analyze the food-safety situation, guides and coordinates food-safety work, makes food-safety policies and urges relevant departments to fulfill their responsibilities in food supervision.

Coordination and enforcement are still a challenge for the group to enable different bureaucracies to work efficiently and effectively. Also, those who are in charge of food safety should be held accountable in strict accordance with the law.

Li said officials must accept responsibility for wrongdoing, regardless of their department or region. A lack of enforcement and accountability lets officials shirk their duties, while the public pays the price.

The unified administrative organ with the authority to deal with all the issues relating to food safety has to show its teeth.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily. E-mail: