Staying in the media spotlight may be a good thing, but not if you're in it
for the wrong reason. China's food safety watchdogs know that better than many
The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine
(GAQSIQ), which is responsible for ensuring the safety of Chinese exports, has
had to face constant questions from across the world because of the spate of
food scares in recent times.
Back home, the public has bombarded the State Food and Drug Administration
(SFDA) with questions after media reports on poisonous fish, red sudan dye in
duck eggs and contaminated pork and rice.
Corruption has further dwindled public confidence in the watchdogs. Just two
weeks ago, former SFDA head Zheng Xiaoyu and his erstwhile secretary went on
trial for taking bribes to approve certain drugs.
But despite all this, the watchdogs can't be blamed for all the ills plaguing
the nation's food industry. A dozen or so government organizations are
responsible for supervising and monitoring the industry, and they include the
Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Agriculture.
The fact is that the country lacks proper infrastructure to monitor the quality
of food and ensure their safety. This has become all the more evident because of
the export boom, say experts and officials.
The infrastructure should be all encompassing to cover the millions of food
producers in the country. It should be powerful enough to dismantle protective
umbrellas of some local authorities and flexible enough to deal with food
poisoning, they say.
This is very important because the country's food industry is still to attain
the high level associated with the developed economies, especially the scale of
its business and regulation, says Wu Jianping, director of GAQSIQ's food
production monitoring department.
The GAQSIQ and its branches across China have investigated cases against
450,000 food production companies since the beginning of the century, with about
350,000 of them being small businesses employing less than ten people, Wu says.
A whopping 60 percent of these companies don't have a quality control mechanism.
What's more, 29 percent of them don't even put "quality labels" on their
That's not all, for about 220,000 of these companies don't have the requisite
licenses for production, such as those for conducting business and maintaining
sanitary standards. Worse still, nearly 160,000 don't have any licenses at all.
The problem is that even the small companies that function without licenses
can have a large market and be a major source of food scare, Wu says.
For instance, the Tianyang Food Co in Guangzhou, capital of South China's
Guangdong Province, had only one old machine and employed just four people. But
it sold food additives that contained chemical dyes to more than 100 companies
in a dozen provinces. The result: the chilli sauce made by these 100-odd
companies was found to contain the banned red sudan dye last year.
That prompted GAQSIQ to make the regulation on improving small factories'
production methods its top priority this year, Wu says. These companies need to
have basic quality control measures in place within a given period, failing
which they would be forced to shut down.
Thousands of wrongdoings have been reported during the ongoing nationwide
inspection of small food producers. For example, a dozen factories in Chengdu,
capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, bought expired noodles, soaked
them in water and then dried and repacked them. Having done that, they sold them
to a number of supermarkets, including some high-end ones in big cities. The
expired products thus shared the shelves with genuine and top quality products.
Some factories in East China's Jiangxi and Central China's Hunan provinces
were found to have added paraffin to starch noodles, a favorite food of many
Chinese, to give them a better look. Imagine being served tiny pieces of candles
mixed with your favorite dish for dinner!
But even after such serious violations come to light, it's sometimes
difficult to shut down the guilty factories or punish their owners because they
are under the protective umbrellas of some local governments. Besides, there is
no specific and all-comprehensive law on food safety, says Ren Qixing, a member
of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top
political advisory body. Ren has suggested the government deal with such
companies with an iron hand.
The problem is not lack of laws on food safety but an abundance of them,
especially because none of the dozens of laws and regulations covers the entire
process - from food making to serving them in restaurants and retailing them in
outlets. Therefore, it's often not easy to put the laws into practise when they
are violated. What inspectors can do at best is to give administrative orders or
impose a fine, Ren says.
But fortunately, the situation is changing. A law on food safety is supposed
to be implemented later this year, deputies to the National People's Congress
(NPC), the country's top legislature, said at its annual session in March. In
fact, it has been part of NPC's schedule since 2003.
Last month, some NPC deputies asked the legislative affairs office of the
State Council, China's cabinet, to speed up its work after reading its latest
report. The office, which is responsible for drafting laws, was asked to hand in
the draft on a food safety law on schedule.
Apart from an all-comprehensive law, a more efficient and powerful
organization is needed to monitor the quality of food to reduce the risk of
contamination and poisoning. The problem, says Ren, is there are too many
watchdogs that do some jobs repeatedly and leave others totally unattended.
A food safety specialist and an academic with the Chinese Academy of
Engineering Sciences Chen Junshi says better communication should be established
among the administrators, experts, the media and the public. "The public is
focusing its attention on additives, chemicals, pesticides and preservatives.
But it often lacks knowledge of more deadly contaminants that can cause cholera
(China Daily 05/29/2007 page12)