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Food Safety Beset by Challenges
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Food and drug safety supervision faces "challenges", but the situation is improving thanks to enhanced consumer awareness and quality control, regulators said yesterday.

At a rare press conference that brought together major watchdogs of the country's food and drug quality following an avalanche of media criticism over safety and fraud, officials frankly acknowledged the problems they encounter and outlined steps to tackle them.

"As a developing country, China's food and drug supervision work began late with weak foundations. Therefore, the situation is not very satisfactory," said Yan Jiangying, a spokeswoman for the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA).

Corruption cases, such as those involving the former SFDA chief Zheng Xiaoyu - who was executed yesterday - have "brought great shame upon us", she said (see story below).

"We should draw lessons from these cases and sincerely protect public food and drug safety," Yan said.

The government is implementing a five-year plan to tighten the supervision of food and drug products, upgrade standards and vastly reduce the number of incidents caused by defective food or faulty medicines by 2010, she told the news conference held by the State Council Information Office in Beijing.

Wu Jianping of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, offered reasons for optimism.

"Our food market access system has been so implemented that supermarkets like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Hualian do not stock food items without a Quality Safe (QS) mark," the chief of the agency's food production and supervision department said.

"When housewives shop in a supermarket, they make sure the goods are labeled with a QS mark; if not, they don't buy them."

Wu said "survival of the best" is gaining momentum in China.

"Scrupulous" food businesses, including those producing China's top brands, are typically seeing their sales increase handsomely while those blacklisted could hardly survive, Wu said.

The QS mark, which made its debut in 2003, indicates a product has passed the market access scrutiny of the quality supervision agency. All the processed food produced in China will eventually have to be labeled with such a sign, Wu said without specifying a timetable.

Right now, 525 products in 28 categories including wheat flour, vinegar, sauce, cooking oil and rice are required to bear the mark to enter the market.

To weed out shoddy products, the agency is also striving to clean up small food businesses, preventing their products from being sold in supermarkets.

China has nearly 450,000 food makers, of which roughly four in every five employ fewer than 10 people. The number of such firms will be cut by half by the end of 2009, Wu said.

Lin Wei, deputy head of the quality inspection agency's import and export food safety bureau, said recent food safety problems, including the scare over pet food exported to North America, are isolated cases caused by illegal firms.

The agency has published a blacklist of companies that breached safety rules and regulations on its website (www.aqsiq.gov.cn), and stripped them of their export rights.

(China Daily July 11, 2007)

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