Food safety still an issue for cautious consumers

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A senior agricultural official said on Saturday the country's milk products were "trustworthy", although it would take time to restore consumer confidence in domestic brands.

"Over the past few years, tests on melamine (in milk products) have registered a 100 percent pass rate, meaning there has been no melamine added," said Vice-Minister of Agriculture Wei Chao'an. "Neither have we detected leather hydrolyzed protein in milk products."

Both melamine and leather hydrolyzed protein are banned additives but sometimes used illegally to boost protein content in products.

Hundreds of mainland consumers have swarmed to Hong Kong and some other overseas markets on a buying spree in recent months, sweeping local shops of baby formula powder and other dairy products. On Wednesday, several people even clashed over baby formula powder at a Hong Kong store.

"We surely must put the safety of agricultural produce first thing," Wei told a press conference during the parliamentary session of the National People's Congress, which ends on Monday.

"A priority of the ministry in 2011 is to prevent the occurrence of any major food safety and quality snags."

In 2008, melamine-contaminated milk powder killed at least six infants and made hundreds of children ill across the country. The case has seriously eroded consumer confidence in domestic dairy products, a problem which Wei said the ministry has to take very seriously.

Following the notorious scandal, dairy product imports surged fivefold, from 120,000 tons in 2008 to 600,000 tons in 2009, Liu Peizhi, deputy head of the executive office of the State Council Food Safety Commission, said earlier this week.

"We must consistently improve dairy production to reinstate the market foothold of domestic fresh milk, milk powder and other dairy products; it will be a (gradual) process to restore consumers' trust," Wei said.

He claimed that the so-called "leather milk" - milk with substance extracted from leather scraps - might have been wrongly reported by the media.

The single firm found to have been involved was a lactobacillus beverage maker in Jinhua city of Zhejiang province, whose product was found to have contained leather hydrolyzed protein in 2009, Wei said.

Wei also said aquaculture contributed to the bulk of the country's 54 million tons of aquatic products last year, only less than 1 million tons coming from ocean fishing.

China has joined eight international fishery convention organizations and supported the international community's efforts to fight illegal fishing, chief economist of the Ministry of Agriculture Chen Mengshan said.

Chen also said the mainland would help Taiwan farmers to expand market presence on the mainland, and protect the intellectual property rights of the island's agricultural products.

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