China offers a plan in wake of poisoned-food scandals

Domestic consumers, not foreign press, led to China's new food-safety strategy.

Battered by a wave of poisoned-food scandals around the world, China this week unveiled a new plan to improve its food and drug safety that promised "severe punishment" for producers of fake or poor quality food.

"Guaranteeing the safety of all publicly available foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals must be the alpha and omega of all our work," the five-year plan declared. It pledged to uphold international safety inspection standards and threatened public blacklists of "untrustworthy" food and drug producers.

Though the recent food scares abroad may have prompted the timing of the new plan's release, its content was aimed more at domestic consumers.

"The external factors helped push things along," says David Zweig, head of the Center for China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology. "But the driving force behind this is the fact that Chinese have been dying for quite a while" from tainted food and drugs.

Chinese consumers have long been familiar with local food producers' trickery, and the government drew up its new plan to combat the problem in April, before the spate of critical foreign press reports.

A survey published last December by "Xiao Kang," a state-run monthly aimed at government officials, found that 92.7 percent of respondents said that they "always worry that the food they buy is unsafe."

Ninety-seven percent complained that "the government's food safety policies are not effective," and 84 percent declared themselves "dissatisfied with the level of food-safety monitoring."

The authorities went some way toward answering widespread public concerns last week, when a former head of the Chinese Food and Drug Administration was sentenced to death for accepting bribes. Fake antibiotics that his agency had approved killed 10 people.

Though food and agricultural items make up only 4 percent of China's overall exports, three recent scares have focused international attention on the unreliable quality of some Chinese products that have slipped through a weak and often corrupt regulatory system.

Pet food, which killed or sickened thousands of domestic animals in the United States, was found to contain Chinese-sourced wheat gluten contaminated with melamine, used to boost the product's apparent protein count.

At least 51 people died last year in Panama after taking cough medicine tainted by an industrial solvent, masquerading as the artificial sweetener glycerine, shipped from China. And thousands of tubes of toothpaste have been pulled from shelves in Latin America and Singapore for containing the same chemical.

In the wake of the scandals, food inspectors were this week urged to bear "political responsibility" for the quality of Chinese food exports.

"Food safety is not only related to peoples' health, but also to the country's image as well as bilateral and multilateral political relations," the state-owned China Daily quoted Li Changjian, the minister responsible for the safety of consumer goods, as saying.

The new government plan pledges to improve the inspection of food imports and exports, monitor pollution levels in food-producing regions, improve recall mechanisms, set up a food-poisoning reporting network, and establish a "farm to table" certification system, among other measures.

Whether this fresh approach to health-related problems will spread to other areas of international concern, such as the environment, is uncertain.

"How much do they want to curb pollution if that comes at the expense of economic growth?" wonders Dr. Zweig. "But there is no downside to improving food safety. This is just doing well by doing good.

"You don't want 'Made in China' to mean 'Buyer Beware.' "

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