China still facing 'grave' food risks

Experts have warned that new rules in China aimed at safeguarding the country's food quality are only a framework on which to try to improve standards.

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BEIJING // Experts have warned that new rules in China aimed at safeguarding the country's food quality in the wake of the contaminated milk scandal that killed six infants in 2008 are only a framework on which to try to improve standards. A massive increase in the number of specialists able to help enforce tightened regulations is required before the country can be confident the situation has improved, according to those working in the field.

An estimated 300,000 children fell ill in late 2008 after the chemical melamine, which causes kidney problems, was added to milk to increase the apparent protein content. The scandal, which saw allegations of an attempted cover-up levelled against local authorities and also resulted in two executions among those convicted of causing the contamination, led the Chinese government in early 2009 to develop new food safety standards aimed at improving oversight and increasing penalties for contamination.

In February this year, the country set up a food safety commission headed by the vice premier, Li Keqiang, who at the time said "the foundation for the country's food safety is still weak and the situation is grave". Many problems in food safety have developed in China because of the speed at which the industry has grown, according to Ben Embarek, a World Health Organisation official who advises the Chinese government on the subject.

A quarter of a century ago, he said, there was almost no processed food available. Now, he said, the number of products on sale was vast. "It's developed at a pace we haven't seen in other parts of the world," he said. "The private sector has been enormously successful in diversifying so fast and the public sector hasn't been able to keep pace. "That's allowed for some problems to appear, and [they have been] more widely seen here than elsewhere.

"There's been the possibility for a lot of unscrupulous operators to operate without risk of being caught." Speaking at a forum on food safety in Beijing this month, the vice minister of health, Chen Xiaohong, insisted the central government "has always seen food safety as a priority" and had, for example, launched "a crackdown" on illegal food additives. "We've been centrally developing the system for food safety," he said.

Better systems were in place to test whether new food additives were safe, said Li Ning, a deputy director of the Nutrition and Food Safety Institute of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and monitoring hazardous types of fat in foods would also be improved. Speaking at the forum, she acknowledged the country has "a huge task ahead". "We're going to improve proactive risk planning. Previously it would be the media in the lead and the consumer was often unable to have an accurate assessment," she said.

"There's still some way to go to meet the standards of the developed countries." Werner Christie, a former minister of health in Norway who co-chaired the Beijing forum on food safety, said the new law was "a platform" to be used to improve food safety, but in itself it "cannot remedy" the situation. "It's a necessary backbone but nothing more," he said. Concerns were brought into focus again this month when, in the western province of Qinghai, 64 tonnes of milk powder contaminated with melamine were found in a dairy plant, according to local media. Local officials said they believed the consignment dated back to 2008 and had been stored when it should have been destroyed.

Implementing China's toughened laws effectively required hundreds of more well-qualified people both in the industry and in the authorities to upgrade quality control, Mr Embarek said. China's vast size, and its decentralised system of government, also posed hurdles to the countrywide implementation of standards. "That's a huge challenge," he said. "That explains why you still have these issues popping up on a regular basis."

Despite the difficulties that lie ahead, many consumers already insist their confidence in the food they buy has increased. Wu Xiaoyan, 33, a marketing executive who lives in Beijing, said she was "not worried" about food safety. "All the food now must be safe," she added. Similarly, He Fuyuan, 23, who also works in marketing, said he believed "now the food is much safer" than at the time of the melamine scandal.

However, some remain wary. Zhang Qingyun, 46, a contract worker in Beijing, said she tried sticking to unprocessed foods such as fruit and vegetables as much as possible. "There are no scandals with vegetables," she said. Indeed "it will take time to restore that confidence", according to Mr Embarek, who said consumers needed to see that a system was in place "doing what it's supposed to do". "But consumers have a role to play in pushing the industry into producing safe rather than low cost food."