China's top legislature approved the Food Safety Law on Saturday, providing a legal basis for the government to strengthen food safety control "from the production line to the dining table."
The law, which goes into effect on June 1, 2009, will enhance monitoring and supervision, toughen safety standards, recall substandard products and severely punish offenders.
The National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee gave the green light to the intensively-debated draft law at the last day of a four-day legislative session, following a spate of food scandals which triggered vehement calls for overhauling China's current monitoring system.
Winning 158 out of 165 votes, the law said the State Council, or Cabinet, would set up a state-level food safety commission to oversee the entire food monitoring system, whose lack of efficiency has long been blamed for repeated scandals.
The departments of health, agriculture, quality supervision, industry and commerce administration will shoulder different responsibilities.
These would include risk evaluation, the making and implementation of safety standards, and the monitoring of about 500,000 food companies across China, as well as circulation sector.
The law draft had been revised several times since it was submitted to the NPC Standing Committee for the first reading in December 2007.
It had been expected to be voted by lawmakers last October, but the voting was postponed for further revision following the tainted dairy products scandal last September, in which at least six babies died and 290,000 others were poisoned.
"It actually took us five years to draft this law since the State Council first made legislative recommendations in July 2004.It has undergone intensive consideration, because it is so vital to every person," Xin Chunying, deputy director of the NPC Standing Committee's Legislative Affairs Commission, said at a press briefing after the law was adopted.
She said although China had certain food quality control systems in place for many years, lots of loopholes emerged in past years, mainly due to varied standards, lack of sense of social responsibility among some business people, too lenient punishment on violators and weakness in testing and monitoring work.
China has a food hygiene law, which took effect in 1995, to regulate issues of food safety, but many lawmakers said it was too outdated to meet the need of practice.
For example, the law is far from being adequate in addressing the problem of pesticide residue in foodstuff.
According to the new law, China will set up compulsory standards on food safety, covering a wide range from the use of additives to safety and nutrition labels.
The law stipulates a ban on all chemicals and materials other than authorized additives in food production, saying that "only those items proved to be safe and necessary in food production are allowed to be listed as food additives."
Health authorities are responsible for assessing and approving food additives and regulating their usage.
Food producers must only use food additives and their usage previously approved by authorities, on penalty of closure or revocation of production licenses in serious cases, according to the law.
In the tainted dairy products scandal, melamine, often used in the manufacture of plastics, was added to substandard or diluted milk to make protein levels appear higher than they actually were.
"Melamine had never been allowed to be used as food additive in China. Now the law makes an even clearer and stricter ban on it," Xin said.
She said the compulsory system to recall substandard food, as written in the law, would also be effective in curbing food-related health risks.
Producers of edible farm products are required to abide by food safety standards when using pesticide, fertilizer, growth regulators, veterinary drugs, feedstuff and feed additives. They must also keep farming or breeding records.
Offenders can face maximum fines which would be 10 times the value of sold products, compared with five times at present.
If businesses are found producing or selling a substandard foodstuff, consumers can ask for financial compensation which is 10 times the price of the product. That's in addition to compensation for the harm the product causes to the consumer.
For those whose food production licenses are revoked due to illegal conducts, they will be banned from doing food business in the following five years.
"This is a big step to increase penalties on law violators," Xin said.
Another highlight of the law is that celebrities can share responsibility for advertising for food products that are found to be unsafe.
The law says all organizations and individuals who recommend substandard food products in ads will face joint liability for damages incurred.
This has been a hot topic in China where film stars, singers and celebrities are often paid to appear in ads of food products.
"The provisions were added out of concern over fake advertisements, which contained misleading information. Many of the advertisements featured celebrities," said Liu Xirong, vice chairman of the NPC Law Committee.
Several Chinese celebrities had advertised for products of the Sanlu Group, a company at the epicenter of the tainted dairy product scandal. They were vehemently criticized after thousands of babies were poisoned by the Sanlu formula.
Many people posted online demands for them to apologize to and compensate families of the sickened babies. But others argued that it was unfair to blame the celebrities as Sanlu had legal documents to prove its products safe.
On tonic food, a booming industry with an estimated annual output value of 100 billion yuan (14.62 billion U.S. dollars) in China, the law prohibits any claims related to prevention or cure of illness on the product's label and instruction leaflets.