An overarching food safety commission will be set up to improve supervision, according to the latest draft of a food safety law submitted to the top legislature for review Wednesday.
The commission will be a "high-level coordination and guidance" body, and details of its responsibilities and authority will be decided by the State Council, Liu Xirong, deputy director of the National People's Congress (NPC) Law Committee, said while explaining the change to legislators.
The head of the proposed commission could be of vice-premier level, said Chen Junshi, a senior researcher with the National Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety affiliated to the Ministry of Health (MOH), indicating it will be a powerful body.
The draft law is likely to be passed over the weekend after the NPC Law Committee Wednesday suggested putting it for vote on Saturday when the current NPC Standing Committee session ends.
Liu said the proposed commission reflects the demands of legislators to streamline the current food supervision mechanism. More than 10 government departments are involved with food safety at present, leading to overlapping of responsibilities and lax law enforcement.
The amendment to the draft law reduces to five the number of government departments: health (MOH), agriculture (MOA), quality control (AQSIQ), industry and commerce (SAIC), as well as food and drug safety (SFDA).
The MOH has been given primary responsibility and a range of new tasks including evaluation of risks, setting standards, investigating accidents and releasing information.
Another major change is that the latest draft law brings under its purview the supervision of health food. "Health food has become a quite big industry, but many problems remain," Liu said. "The supervision of such food should be even stricter."
The draft stipulates that health food must not cause any harm to people, their labels and instruction leaflets must be true, and cannot claim the products can prevent or cure illness. The State Council is required to release a detailed regulation on health food, according to the draft.
By the end of 2007, there were 1,640 health-food producers in the country with an annual output of about 100 billion yuan ($14.6 billion), according to figures from the NPC Standing Committee's Legislative Affairs Committee.
Legislators said they were glad that their opinions were taken into consideration. "I suggested improving the current food safety supervision mechanism during the draft law's last review in October 2008, and I'm happy the latest draft has made changes accordingly," Yu Zhenggui, an NPC Standing Committee member, said.
Experts said the law, if passed, will be a milestone in food safety regulation. "The biggest progress is that the law highlights the importance of safety risk assessment," Chen said.
The draft law devotes a whole chapter to risk assessment, and requires the MOH to set up a risk assessment committee comprising experts in health, agriculture, food and nutrition.
Zhang Yongjian, executive director of the research center for development and regulation of food and drug industry affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said legislation by itself cannot solve all problems.
"There are about 200 million farmers and 500,000 food producers in the country. Such a scattered production model is the fundamental reason behind so many food safety incidents," he said.