China's food safety campaign gathers momentum

Updated: 2011-07-17 15:57


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BEIJING - At a supermarket in the northwestern Chinese city of Lanzhou, Zhang Lei starts his work as a food-safety inspector at 8 am everyday to examine all the fresh meat, dairy products as well as certain other foods.

He needs to make sure food that has expired or gone bad is taken off the shelf and food hygiene certificates, food inspection reports, and other qualifications of food producers are checked and filed before their products are sold.

Zhang is one of nearly 1,000 food-safety inspectors in supermarkets and restaurants in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province. They have been recruited since the beginning of the year as required by the local government, as part of the ongoing nationwide campaign to ensure food safety.

Food safety is a growing public concern in China. In 2010 alone, authorities across the country investigated and handled 130,000 cases of food safety violations, shutting down over 100,000 enterprises, according to the State Council Food Safety Commission.

The Chinese government has pledged to do everything it can to ensure food safety, and to severely punish companies that sell unsafe food.

In the first half of 2011, 327 people involved in 240 food safety cases were arrested in the southwestern Sichuan province, and 565 unlicensed businesses were shut down in the eastern Fujian province amid a campaign to regulate the food market in its rural areas.

Shanghai is planning to have a new hotline operating by the end of 2011 to handle all types of food safety complaints and tip-offs in the city.

In Lanzhou fast test stations have been set up in every large supermarket in the city, and in wholesale fruit and vegetable markets, farm-produce growing areas and livestock breeding regions in the city's outskirts.

The stations conduct tests for both pesticide residue and illegal additives in farm produces, said Wang Qingbang, an official with Gansu Industry and Commerce Administration.

Wang said fast test stations will open in all the 14 cities and prefectures in Gansu by the end of the year.

Access to the market is given to products that have passed the fast test, and test results are filed and made public, according to Luo Liuxin, who is a quality inspector in Lanzhou.

It has become a common practice nationwide to inform the public of food safety-related information.

Supermarkets in Beijing put on every box of fresh meat a sticker certified by the Beijing Animal Health Inspection Institute, stating that the product has passed the quarantine inspection for animal products.

In the section of cucumbers and tomatoes, there are notice boards indicating they are pollution-free farm produces and presenting the names and pictures of the farmers.

The nationwide food safety campaign is aimed at reshaping the entire food industry, and the focus is currently on illegal use of food additives.

Clenbuterol, an illegal and poisonous additive, was detected in some pork products of the country's largest meat processor Shuanghui Group earlier this year, and a company in Shanghai added coloring to make wheat buns look like corn flour buns and black rice buns, which could be sold at higher prices than wheat buns.

Restaurants that deliberately add inedible ingredients to their food and drinks will face severe punishments, said the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) in May.

Other punishments for these restaurants could include revoking of operating licenses and confiscation of contaminated food and earnings from sales of such food.

Meanwhile, all catering businesses with self-made hotpot seasoning, beverage and flavoring have been ordered to post what food additives they use at a prominent place in their restaurants or on their menus.

"Our kitchen is always open to customers, so that they can have a clear idea of what seasonings are being used," said Sun Zhongshan, hall manager of Huatianmakai, a time-honored restaurant in Beijing.

The practice of disclosing food additives helps consumers to keep informed about what they're taking in, said Zhang Shuzhen, manager of a Lanzhou restaurant.

However, there are concerns that to protect their secret recipes, some hotpot restaurants have only disclosed some of their ingredients or just promised that no illegal additives have been used.

"It is still hard to believe them 100 percent," a Lanzhou resident named Li Junru said.

Also, a system of registering the real names of food-additive buyers and sellers has taken shape across the country.

"It aims at ensuring food additives are purchased and used legally," said He Wensheng, an associate professor from the School of Management of Lanzhou University.

"The government has been filling the loopholes, but there's a long way to go to win the food safety war," He added.