Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Food Safety This Wednesday: Chinese Leaders Vow To Toughen Regulations And Improve Inspection System

It remains to be seen whether the Chinese government is responding as gravely concerned leaders, forward-looking and justifiably worried businessmen, or public relations pros throwing down the expected comfort words, muffling fires (or attempting to) before they rage out of control. Perhaps they're acting in all three capacities--judge for yourself:

SHANGHAI, June 6 — Responding to growing international concerns about tainted food and counterfeit drugs, China said late Tuesday that it was overhauling its food and drug safety regulations and would introduce nationwide inspections.

The announcement, from the State Council, the nation’s highest administrative body, is the strongest signal yet that Beijing is moving to crack down on the sale of dangerous food and medicine and also trying to calm fears that some of its exports pose health problems.

The move follows a series of embarrassing episodes this year involving China’s export of contaminated pet food ingredients and toothpaste. The shipments of tainted pet food ingredients set off one of the largest pet food recalls in United States history.

Last month, an article in The New York Times revealed that at least 100 people had died in Panama after taking medicine containing a toxic chemical called diethylene glycol that had been produced in China and exported as the harmless syrup glycerine.

And in recent weeks, several countries, including the United States, Panama and Nicaragua, recalled or issued warnings about toothpaste made in China because it contained diethylene glycol.

While Beijing has strongly defended the quality and safety of its food and drug exports, and even denied that toothpaste it exported was unsafe, government regulators at the same time have stepped up safety inspections and shut down companies accused of producing unsafe food or counterfeit drugs.

But with pressure growing from regulators in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world, and international food companies expressing concern about the risks of importing Chinese-made food and feed ingredients, Beijing is pushing for a more forceful response to the crisis.

In its announcement on Tuesday, which was posted on a government Web site, China said that the state council had approved a new food and drug safety guarantee system on April 17 and that an outline of the new program was being distributed to government agencies nationwide.

While the new program sets laudable goals, the outline offers little in the way of a plan by which to achieve them. For example, officials state that by 2010, they will have implemented new controls on food and drug imports and exports; however, it is not clear what these controls will be, nor how the consistency of an exporter's compliance therewith might be monitored--and acted upon, if necessary--in the interest of ongoing commerce if not public health. Absent too is any meaningful plan for carrying out and enforcing the program fairly and uniformly across a nation as massive as China, especially since much of it is rural and remote. The program does call for more random testings of medicines (oddly, food is not specifically mentioned as needing more random inspections) and will require that inspection information (presumably a written label or bill of lading) be supplied with 90 percent of all food products. But why not randomly inspect food as well as medicine slated for foreign shipment, since many of the Dangerous Export Incidents precipitating this rather-too-late announcement actually were about food products? Adulterated, rotten, mislabeled, and otherwise toxic food products that were destined for--that landed in--America's human and animal food supply? And why not require that inspection information be supplied for all food products, not just 90% of them?

As for promises to check up on food makers and crack down on counterfeiters in general, I would ask, How? Will this be yet another strong-arm movement that winds up hurting the least powerful while pretending not to notice the transgressions of those who were in a position to do whatever they had to do to not have their transgressions noticed?

But the challenges facing China are enormous because its regulatory system is weak and enforcement is particularly difficult, partly because the economy is growing so fast and also because local officials accept bribes and sometimes allow small companies to flout regulations.

Also, regulators here say many exporters of food and medicines are mislabeling goods and shipping them illegally.

Two weeks ago, food and drug safety issues were even on the table in Washington during the strategic economic dialogue hosted by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

“These are issues China has to deal with over time,” says Rio D. Praaning, secretary general of the Public Advice International Foundation in Belgium, an advisory group that is working on food and drug safety issues around the world. “But we can’t wait. We have interim developments. We have patience, but frankly patience is out the window when people start dying.”

We have patience, but frankly patience is out the window when people start dying.

Hear, hear, Mr. Praaning. One quibble, though: people haven't just started dying. The issue of tragic deaths and illnesses caused by dangerous food and medicine imports has been an underreported but nonetheless horrifying--and continually developing--story for some time, now.

Also at Shakesville.

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