Cooking up a proper recipe for safe food

By Wang Shanshan (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-05-29 07:04

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 other organizations.

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 products.

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 and dysentery."

(China Daily 05/29/2007 page12)

Top China News  
Today's Top News  
Most Commented/Read Stories in 48 Hours