Food labeling is sensible, but within limits

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Shopping for food has become a tricky business.

Not only do we have to find what we want in larger outlets, packed with ever-busier aisles, we also have to negotiate what can at times be a minefield of product labels, which tell us exactly what's in the food, and also maybe more importantly, what's not.

There's "green food", "organic food", "non-GMO" food, "agro-product geological indication", "safety food", those with "no food additives", "no antibiotic residues", "no pesticide residues", "no edible pigments"...

Do any of these labels make sense to you? They certainly don't to me.

And it becomes no-less complicated if there are no labels at all.

As one of my friends, Liu Yuqi, said to me recently, "If a food product is not tagged with these labels, should we buy it or not?"

His solution is to "buy expensive".

Every time he wants to buy eggs for his child, for instance, he chooses the priciest on the shelf, because the more expensive the product is, the better quality it will be, he says.

But interestingly, when he's buying something to eat for himself, he just ignores all the labels altogether.

One thing I am sure about, is that this increased use of labeling reflects the government's efforts to improve food quality and safety.

Many of the labels used by manufacturers have been awarded or approved by central or local government departments, after ever-more stringent quality inspections.

The State Administration for Industry and Commerce insists that quality assurance labeling helps customers make the right choices.

Take bottled cooking oil for example.

A "non-GMO" label means the product is made using non-genetically modified organisms.

But other labels such as "green food", "no pesticide residues" and "no food additives" simply complicate the consumer's choice-I think the system has got out of control.

Consumers should not have to bother to check labels one by one to see if they are real or fake, packed with additives or not.

I dream of the day when the government unifies all of these labels into one or two, so shoppers can be confident that what they buy is safe, without having to scrutinize everything before dropping it into their basket.

Consumers have been rightly shocked by the food safety scandals that have been uncovered in recent years: the injection of clenbuterol into pork; recycled cooking oil; pork produced from sick pigs; medicines made with toxic gelatin; rat and fox meat being passed as fit for human consumption; and maybe the most high-profile, the scandal involving a major supplier, delivering meat past its sell-by date to fast-food companies including McDonald's.

They have all been shocking. And like many, I have been slow to forget them.

The use of food additives has become rampant nationwide. According to Xinhua News Agency, Chinese families eat at least 76 food additives a day on average.

Given all the above, food labeling is a sensible thing, but equally you could become paranoid reading every label you see. And in all honesty, many would admit honestly that most of the chemical names in the ingredients actually mean nothing to them.

Policymakers passed what are claimed to be the "toughest food-safety laws" in China's history on April 24, and they will be implemented from Oct 1.

But as long as these cases of companies seeking growth and profits above all else continue, efforts must continue to ensure that the Chinese food chain is as safe, and honest, as possible.

Ongoing improvement in standards, and efficient supervision are essential to make our food safe, but food companies also need to be given more guidance on the sensible use of additives, pesticide and other chemicals.

Changing the long-held habits of some food companies and producers in China will take time.

But in the end, it might well come down to a mix of continued administrative effort, higher levels of business integrity, and ongoing (but sensible) efforts at better consumer awareness.

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