China's top quality control official yesterday promised to push forward a food-safety campaign that nailed 5,654 unsafe food producers last year.
"As the general food safety situation remains grim in the country, we'll continue the overhaul of the food industry this year," Wang Yong, director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), told a national working conference in Beijing.
Food safety has long been a problem haunting China, especially after several deadly cases, such as the tainted milk scandal in 2008 in which at least six babies were killed and about 300,000 were sickened.
Wang said the past year has been a "very difficult" time for quality inspectors across the country, indicating many consumers have lost confidence in government supervision.
However, thanks to joint efforts, quality control officers last year revoked 6,045 food production licenses from 5,654 producers of unsafe food, he said.
A special crackdown against small food plants, which have been blamed by experts for the root of China's food safety problem, also discovered 43,000 unsafe cases, involving products worth 650 million yuan ($95 million).
Meanwhile, 706 food producers were deprived of export licenses last year. More than 99 percent of foodstuffs exported from China passed border quality checks, according to the AQSIQ.
China is undergoing dramatic economic and social changes, and some producers lack basic ethics, he said.
"What's worse, we lack quality inspectors at local bureaus," Wang said.
Official figures show that China now has 220,000 quality officers nationwide, which means every officer is responsible for about 6,000 people. These officers are responsible not only for safe food production, but also for safe consumer products as well as border inspections and quarantines.
At some local stations, two or three officers, with only one computer, are overseeing more than 200 enterprises.
"Under such circumstances, can you guarantee there wouldn't be any problem?" AQSIQ deputy director Zhi Shuping questioned yesterday.
The top quality watchdog also has decided to build up a strong force at local levels in three to five years, in terms of the number of inspectors, equipment and infrastructure improvement.
However, the most important and effective measure to ensure product and food safety is to make producers fully understand their responsibility, Wang emphasized.
"Safe products come from safe production, not supervision," he said.
Official figures show that small plants, with 10 or fewer workers, account for three-quarters of the food manufacturers in China.
"And the food raw material comes from about 200 million farmers across the country. It is almost impossible to get rid of accidents under the current situation," said Chen Junshi, a senior researcher at the National Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety.
In addition, at least five government departments are involved with food safety at present, leading to overlapping of responsibilities and lax law enforcement, he said.