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Feature: As China grapples with food safety, consumers wonder and worry (2)
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11:17, March 27, 2009

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THE HUMAN TOLL

According to the Ministry of Health, there were 431 food poisoning incidents reported in China last year, causing 13,095 illnesses, and 154 deaths.

Then there was the scandal that broke last September, in which dairy products, including baby milk powder, were adulterated with melamine. At least six Chinese infants died and almost 300,000 developed kidney problems and other symptoms.

In this case, the former board chairwoman and general manager of the Sanlu diary group, Tian Wenhua, was sentenced to life in prison. Earlier this month, eight senior government officials from food quality supervision departments and agriculture ministry were fired or disciplined for supervisory failure in the scandal. Last year, the director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) Li Changjiang resigned.

In mid-March, 15 people were arrested in the southern Guangdong Province on charges of selling pigs that had been given fodder containing banned additives -- ractopamine and clenbuterol -- which help pigs produce leaner pork. The latter chemical is banned as an additive in pig feed in China because it can be harmful and even fatal to humans.

TRADING PARTNERS ACT

The milk scandal had a swift impact on China's dairy product exports. The General Administration of Customs said these shipments dropped 10.4 percent last year to 121,000 tonnes after the scandal made the headlines.

There has also been lost export business for small producers of cooked food, seafood, pet food and even medicine, when these companies found they could not meet the safety requirements of foreign countries.

The concerns reach far down into the local level. For example, Shunde City in Guangdong Province has been a major supplier of eels. However, the city saw its exports plunge last year after overseas consumers, especially in Japan, became worried about food safety.

In the first three quarters of 2008, exports fell 66 percent by volume and almost 53 percent by value. Shipments to Japan, the single largest overseas buyer of Shunde's eels, fell 61.2 percent.

Last November, United States Department of Health and Human Services opened offices of its Food and Drug Administration in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, the first outside the United States, as "a part of an ongoing strategy to continually improve import safeguards."

Experts said this move reflected the concern of other countries about the safety of Chinese food.

"Once a time, 'Made in China' products are losing trust in overseas markets," said Zhu.

IMPORTS CAN ALSO BE DANGEROUS

Experts warned that problems in the inspection and quality system in China were also exposing Chinese consumers to unsafe imported food. For example, in December, China suspended the import of Irish pork products and animal feed after the products were suspected of being tainted with dioxin, a chemical derived from petroleum, which is thought to be harmful to humans.

China's quarantine inspectors detained about 312 tons of Irish pork products, but by then another 93 tons had already made their way into the market.

Ge Zhirong, a former AQSIQ director, told Beijing Sci-Tech Report this month that the government should introduce new regulations on import/export food safety supervision and management.

"That would safeguard the rights of both domestic consumers and overseas consumers," he added.

GOVERNMENT EFFORTS

In addition to the labeling law introduced in September, the Chinese government has made other safety efforts.

In February, China approved a Food Safety Law, which states that "only those items proved to be safe and necessary in food production are allowed to be listed as food additives."

The law, which will take effect June 1, says food producers may only use additives that have been approved by the authorities. Companies that break the law face possible temporary or permanent closure, the latter through the loss of production licenses in serious cases. The law also:

-- requires food producers to follow safety standards when using pesticide, fertilizer, growth regulators, veterinary drugs, animal feed and feed additives, and to keep farming or breeding records.

-- gives consumers whose health is affected by unsafe food the right to claim losses of up to 10 times the purchase price from manufacturers or retailers.

-- regulates ads, stating that "social institutions, organizations and individuals are forbidden to recommend food products in deceptive advertisements" at the risk of unspecified damages.

-- sets up a recall system, under which producers must recall food that fails to meet national standards immediately, while retailers must stop sales of "problem food".

-- makes the Ministry of Health responsible for assessing and approving food additives and regulating their usage.

On March 6, the Ministry of Health issued a circular to its local offices, urging them to step up prevention of food contamination and monitoring of food quality-related illnesses. The circular covered 16 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities where food problems have been most prevalent.

At the same time, Health Minister Chen Zhu said the ministry would create a national database covering food contamination and food-borne illnesses within two years. He also ordered hospitals and other health organizations to report food poisoning and other food-related illnesses promptly.

BETTER, BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH

Professor Zhang Xi'an of Northwest University of Politics and Law in Shaanxi Province told Xinhua: "The law was a new push to improve food safety through stricter monitoring and supervision, tougher safety standards, recall of substandard products and severe punishment for offenders."

"Most companies do a good job of ensuring food safety, but some small companies still fail to produce safe food," said Zhu of the Beijing Jindong Law Firm.

"But as far as I know, only a few companies have been punished, because government supervision was not as strict as expected. The government should play a more active role in safeguarding the market," Zhu said.

"Most consumers only learn about food problems from the media. It isn't fair to the people," he said.

Zhu suggested that the government conduct more frequent and stricter inspections nationwide, to expose risks, crack down on illegal activities and protect consumers' rights.

"On the website of the Ministry of Health, there is a document listing all the food additives approved by the government. Consumers should study it carefully to protect their health," he said.

TOO MANY SUPERVISORS

Zhang said the "root cause" of China's food safety problem is that the country "lacks a central administrative body to manage food safety."

He said: "There are too many government bodies involved with food safety, including health departments, drug and food safety bodies and others.

"These bodies share licensing and inspection duties, and many of the duties overlap. Even worse, some of the rules for producers contradict one another, so some companies can take the advantage of loopholes in the regulatory system."

On March 5, Premier Wen Jiabao said in the 2009 government work report to the annual legislative session that China would step up the fight against unsafe food.

China Health Care Association secretary general Xu Huafeng told Xinhua this statement reflected the understanding that the government "can't sit still."

CONSUMERS WANT ANSWERS

As for 'wheat bleaching', the Ministry of Health launched an investigation in December into whether benzoyl peroxide was harmful to humans and what quantity, if any, should be allowed in food.

According to media reports earlier this month, the ministry indicated that experts were still investigating the issue. It didn't say when the results would be available.

Luo Yunbo, Vice Chairman of the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFST), a non-profit academic institution, said: "The investigation is a complex process that requires several tests and experiments, and the result is not likely to come out soon."

Luo said officials and experts should take a scientific attitude towards the experiment. They should neither demonize food additives nor conceal the truth about them.

"Whatever the result, the ministry should tell the public quickly. Industry development should not call for a sacrifice of the public interest," he added.

CURIOSITY IS POSITIVE

Hou Caiyun, a food expert with China Agricultural University in Beijing, said it was a good sign that consumers had become more cautious about food quality, which reflected social and economic development.

"However, people should look at food additives correctly. Excessive panic should be avoided," she said. Banned substances such as melamine and Sudan red were one thing, approved additives were another.

She said: "Minimal amounts of benzoyl peroxide aren't harmful to human health, at least according to the tests so far, because this substance can be digested and excreted.

"This doesn't mean that enterprises can add the substance at random. They should strictly abide by the country's regulations," she added.

Hou suggested that the government encourage consumers to change some of their eating habits and enjoy "green food".

She said: "People should shift their emphasis from appearance to food quality."

Hou said China's flour industry and food processing technology have matured sufficiently to produce food that is "nice-looking" and tasty, without additives.

"In the long run, food additives will be used less and less," she said.

Source:Xinhua
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