STRICT INSPECTION: Vegetable samples wait to be inspected at the Nanjing Jinxianghe Market in Jiangsu Province (SHEN PENG)
A wave of recent contaminated food incidents, exemplified by an E.coli outbreak in Germany and the discovery of industrial plasticizers in sports drinks produced in Taiwan, are raising public awareness to deficiencies in food safety standards the world over. Responses have been quick, with consumers and governments of various localities calling for improved production and distribution standards and efforts to crack down on food safety violators.
The issue has taken center stage in China, especially in the wake of the food safety scandals in dairy and meat industries in recent years. Government action kicked off with a food safety campaign in April and a follow-up in June to raise public awareness on the issue and address consumer concerns. The campaigns, focusing on China's Food Safety Law launched in 2009, address issues from food safety standards, food production, food imports and exports to handling of food safety accidents, government priorities on food safety administration and the obligations of food producers.
"These efforts are designed to make the public more aware of the importance of food safety, care about food safety and reinforce food safety," said Chen Xu, Deputy Inspector of the Department of Food Safety Supervision at the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA).
In May, the State Council's Office of Food Safety Committee (OFSC) released the Outline of Food Safety Promotion and Education Work (2011-15). The document outlines the responsibilities of all parties involved in the food safety issue and sets aside one week in June every year to promote food safety.
Additionally, a food safety forum was held on June 13. Officials from nine ministries and commissions under the State Council, including the OFSC, the Ministry of Public Security, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ) and the SFDA, attended the forum to discuss solutions to China's recurring food safety problems.
For all the contamination incidents plaguing China over the past three years, overall food safety standards and protocols are improving. More than 96 percent of agricultural products—vegetables, animal by-products and aquatic products—met standards in 2010 under GAQSIQ monitoring, more than 30 percentage points higher than in 2001, GAQSIQ Vice Minister Pu Changcheng said.
The GAQSIQ found that this year China's food exports have been higher in quality than its food imports, as indicated by the increasing number of fines placed on foreign importers who violated China's Food Safety Law, Pu said.
Xu Hu, an official with the Ministry of Public Security, said at the June 13 food safety forum the ministry's branches have launched a campaign against the fat-burning drug clenbuterol used to produce lean pork. The controversy erupted this April after the additive was found in lean pork in Henan Province. So far, more than 2,000 people involved in producing, selling and using the drug have been detained.
The Ministry of Health annulled 42 provisions no longer relevant to today's greater expectations for food safety standards, established a mechanism for food safety risk monitoring and assessment, and updated 176 national food safety standards. It also set up a national committee of experts to assess related risks in order to strengthen food monitoring.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has had an active hand in related efforts as well. It drew up a plan to spur food enterprises to build their credibility in addition to plans on credibility management and universal standards for the food industry.
The State Administration for Industry and Commerce has called for its local branches to categorize and complete food safety records for food businesses under their administration to simplify monitoring efforts in the future, and punish and close businesses that violate food safety standards by selling or producing products with illegal additives.