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China's watchdog for aquatic product safety will launch a nationwide inspection program targeting forbidden chemicals used in fish, the vice-director of the fisheries bureau under the Ministry of Agriculture announced on Monday.

"Special teams will be sent to check markets throughout the country from now till the end of the year," Chen Yide said at a press conference in Beijing.

Chen also listed other efforts including encouraging the use of better newly hatched fish and building an improved nationwide inspection network.

China has been confronted with food security problems recently. Mandarin fish from Guangdong Province and turbot from Shandong were found to contain poisonous chemicals.

And ducks and hens in Hebei Province were fed a red dye so that their red-yolk eggs would sell for a higher price. Last week it was discovered that the dye was carcinogenic.

Chen attributed the frequent food scares to outdated inspection methods and facilities as well as poorly supervised veterinary practices. He said the vast distribution networks and huge number of food producers had added to the difficulties.

In Hong Kong the sale of mandarin fish was banned on Sunday after the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department found samples contaminated with malachite green dye which can cause cancer. A Hong Kong newspaper reported the department tested 15 one-kilogram samples and found high levels of malachite dye in 11 of them.

A Hong Kong supermarket spokesman said the mandarin fish they sell comes from a registered fish market in south China's Guangdong Province. The market that supplies the fish had health and quarantine certificates.

In a random check of three hotels in Guangzhou yesterday the Guangzhou Hotel and the Guangzhou Victory Hotel were reportedly still selling dishes of mandarin fish in their restaurants. The Guangzhou Baiyun Hotel, however, said it had stopped serving fish dishes because of the news.

Malachite green contamination was detected in a number of freshwater fish last year including carp and mandarin. The Hong Kong government has released a list of fish markets it's monitoring.

Many cities including Beijing have banned the sale of turbot in markets and restaurants after Shanghai announced that it had detected excessive amounts of carcinogenic nitrofuran and chloromycetin in 30 samples of the fish.

Some farmers reportedly fed the fish large quantities of medicinal supplements, which leave cancer-causing residue, to increase their resistance to disease.

Regarding the red-yolk eggs the Ministry of Agriculture said yesterday that seven poultry farms in Hebei and one in Zhejiang were found to have used Sudan red dye from 5,598 farms inspected.

But a check of 2,430 poultry feed factories found that none had produced any Sudan red-dyed products.

A total of 10,400 ducks as well as 2,025 kilograms of duck eggs were destroyed during the inspection and 800 kilograms of poultry feed was quarantined for further inspection.

In east China's Shandong Province, where 70 percent of the country's turbot is raised, the poisonous fish were traced to three companies.

Zhang Yuxiang, Ministry of Agriculture spokeswoman, said food producers were encouraged to seek cooperation with fixed buyer markets to ensure a more mature access scheme. Also the ministry said it would broaden the scope of its inspection to include more additives as well as increase inspection frequency.

"Any problem detected during the inspection will be soon traced to its source," Zhang said. "Related bureaus will make timely efforts to minimize the negative influence."

In another development the Ministry of Commerce said it was drafting new rules for food product distribution which would be issued soon. Wholesalers and retail food markets would be required to sign agreements with vendors defining their food quality responsibilities and markets would be encouraged to establish links with suppliers.

New rules will also include more detailed trading information and a more effective system to remove tainted food from the market.

Experts have called for an urgent update of the food safety law. "The food safety legal system begun in 1995 can't keep up with the latest developments in food safety," Zhang Yongjian, executive director of the Food and Drug Industrial Development and Supervision Research Center under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told China Daily.

"The current law leaves loopholes for illegal food producers, decreases and delays law enforceability." He stressed the need for stronger enforcement of the current and future food safety laws. "Even if we had complete regulations if they're not strictly enforced we won't achieve any improvement in food safety supervision at all," Zhang said.

Ma Zhiying, an engineer with the Shanghai Food Safety Research Institute agreed. "We don't have the provisions in the current food safety law to test for many of the problematic additives found in recent food products," Ma told the Xinhua News Agency. "On the other hand the lack of sufficient testing technology means we cannot promptly uncover the problems either."

For example, in the turbot case, Shandong does have an aquatic food quality-check center but it can't make several pesticide residue tests as its Shanghai counterpart can, Ma said.

He also stressed the importance of tightening supervision at the head of the food circulation chain. "Selected tests among markets do find problems," Ma said. "However, that is the bottom of the distribution chain where harm has already been done to a wide range of customers. Moreover, it costs much more to check out after the banned addictives or medicines have been used."

Strict quality standards should also be established to regulate the safe application of fundamental production materials such as seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, additives and medicines.

Zhang Yongjian, of the CASS, also blamed the ambiguous multiple management system. He said "multi-monitoring" was one of the key factors behind many of the food scandals in recent years and "governments should streamline their co-ordination and improve their working efficiency."

Five governmental agencies monitor the safety of agricultural products and livestock. Provincial agriculture departments have jurisdiction over farm operations; quality inspection departments govern processing and packaging; industry and commerce departments monitor the market and public health departments deal with food consumption. The State Food and Drug Administration and its local branches handle the co-ordination with other departments and monitor the whole process.

"In many cases those government bodies are duplicated but sometimes there are procedures that fall between the cracks," said Zhang.

Nevertheless, Han Fanfan, an official with the Beijing Food Safety Inspection Center said, "It's impossible to have only a couple of departments supervising food safety in China according to the country's complicated status quo."

Some successful methods in developed countries, such as the United States, is to have one principle department to supervise one certain kind of food production from field to table.

"However, as a huge agricultural country where 70 percent of farmers are small production units supervision and management costs of food safety are much higher than in some developed countries with a large-scale machinery-based agricultural economy," Han said. "It's also more difficult than in some small countries."

Furthermore, the economic environment in China had very special characteristics as it's in a transitional period. "The most important thing is the self-discipline of food production enterprises under a rational food safety law," Han observed.

Wu Yongning, director of the Chemistry Lab of Food Nutrition and Safety Institute under the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, urged the public not to panic.

"The increase in the incidents of poisoning food like this are natural as the technology of food safety testing is becoming more and more advanced," Wu told China Daily.

He said scares perpetuated by rogue manufacturers in the past couple of years didn't point to a decline in mainland food quality. "Food safety in China is actually making progress as more and more problems unfold."

Moreover, the expert said, food containing carcinogenic elements is not equal to carcinogenic food. "Only when accumulated to a certain amount can the element generate cancer," he said.

(China Daily November 28, 2006)

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