Recent Sino-Japanese memo on the subject seeks to reduce misunderstandings about food import quality standards
China and Japan recently agreed to strengthen bilateral cooperation on food safety after the dumplings poisoning incident that strained Sino-Japanese ties during the early days of 2008 buttressed the case for an accord to handle disputes related to food safety between the Asian neighbors.
The agreement was reached under the umbrella of tripartite cooperation among China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, the three key economies in Northeast Asia.
The Chinese side was represented by its General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine department while the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare represented Japanese interests.
The Asian powers are expected to sign the inter-governmental accord on the subject this month.
According to the deal, China and Japan will set up a ministerial-level consultation mechanism that will hold annual meetings, lay down yearly action plans and make public information on food safety.
In case of food safety related issues, the two have agreed to make information public as quickly as possible and permit teams to inspect each other's food processing venues.
The dumplings poisoning incident took place in late 2007 when 36-year-old Lu Yueting, in order to express dissatisfaction with his pay and colleagues, put a poisonous substance in frozen dumplings at the food plant where he was working in Hebei province.
The tainted dumplings, which were exported, subsequently made 10 Japanese citizens sick.
A subsequent probe showed this to be just a common criminal case, rather than a food safety scandal that the Japanese media claimed was caused by excessive use of pesticide.
The sensational coverage, even before China had probed the matter, caused Japanese citizens to view China-made frozen dumplings with apprehension.
The Japanese media and some politicians in Japan had some vested interests in sensationalizing the case.
The then Takei Fukuda-led Japanese Cabinet was making much effort to improve ties with China after coming to power, but some politicians were opposed to the effort. The "scandal", it was believed, would dent China's image and scuttle the thaw in ties.
Getting the public to panic, it was believed, would also help reduce Japan's dependence on imported food, particularly from China, as nearly 65 percent of its frozen fast-food imports were from the nation.
This, together with its low self-sufficiency in food, at only 40 percent, were the cause of much unease among some Sino-phobic politicians in Japan.
These factors contributed to the failure of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led Japanese government to conduct essential discussions about the long-anticipated framework accord on food safety cooperation with China.
And, the situation remained unchanged until Sept 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) snatched victory from the ruling LDP and formed a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party and the People's New Party.
During the sidelines of the second trilateral summit between leaders of China, Japan and the ROK held last October, Premier Wen Jiabao met with the then newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and established consensus on pushing forward a food safety mechanism between the neighbors.
At a meeting between health ministers of China, Japan and the ROK on Nov 23 the same year, a memorandum on food safety cooperation was also inked by the three nations.
China has long attached the utmost importance to food safety.
On Feb 28, 2009, the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislature, passed the Food Safety Law.
The landmark law, together with the Law on Agricultural Product Quality Safety, adopted by the NPC on April 29, 2006, clarifies the rights and responsibilities of relevant State departments regarding food safety.
Under the law, the National Food Safety Commission was set up directly under the State Council.
The fact that Vice-Premier Li Keqiang was appointed to head the commission indicates the importance the central government attaches to the country's food safety.
On Jan 1, 2010, a free trade area involving liberalized trade and investment between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) became a reality. A similar pact will come into effect between the ASEAN and the ROK and Japan, respectively, in 2011 and in 2012.
The deepened economic and trade cooperation in East Asia highlights the importance and urgency for China, Japan and the ROK to accelerate talks on a free trade and investment pact with each other.
Given that the agricultural products markets in Japan and the ROK have been opened up to other countries, the issue of agricultural products trade has dominated trilateral talks.
Due to the geographic proximity between northeastern China and Japan and the ROK, more cooperation on food production and processing should be carried out by China's northeastern regions.
This will reduce the cost of food production in the other two countries and ensure long-term and stable food supply.
At the same time, accelerated joint development of China's northeastern region will bring more opportunities for a broader economic development and cooperation in Northeast Asia.
The author is a professor with the Peking Union Medical College, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.
(China Daily 06/03/2010 page8)