Following a string of nationwide food problems in recent months, the State Council has vowed to redouble efforts in ensuring food safety.
"Food safety is related to people's health and lives and has a bearing on sound economic development and social stability," according to a statement from a State Council executive meeting in Beijing. Premier Wen Jiabao presided over the Wednesday meeting.
Despite the decline in the number of cases related to fake and shoddy foods, the statement indicated, problems remain rampant in the market and require more conscientious corrective measures.
The council heard a report from the State Food and Drug Administration, but details of the report were not immediately available.
However, a Ministry of Health source said on Wednesday that food poisoning sickened 4,700 people in the second quarter of this year, a jump of 188.5 percent quarter-on-quarter. The number of deaths from climbed 64.4 percent, to 97.
The most notorious case involved substandard infants' milk powder sold in Fuyang, Anhui Province, which caused the death of a dozen babies.
The case, reported in April, drew nationwide attention to food quality and safety problems.
Reiterating the central authorities' commitment to food safety, the State Council said that various agencies have been rectifying matters by eliminating illegal activities such as counterfeiting and making inferior food products.
The council appealed for greater efforts to improve industrial safety and standardization in the food sector.
In addition to shutting down food producers that fail to meet safety standards, substandard products should be denied access to markets. Meanwhile, a unified safety and quality regime should be implemented for agricultural products, preventing pollution at the source.
The meeting also called for a crackdown on major criminal cases regarding food safety and improving the functions of supervisory departments, grain associations and other intermediary bodies.
However, experts believe it is essential to increase penalties drastically for those who ignore food safety statutes.
Professor Hu Xiaosong, of the China Agricultural University, said existing penalties for those who churn out problem food are far from costly when compared to the potential profits.
For example, the 1995 Food Hygiene Law prescribes a meager 5,000-yuan (US$602) fine for food producers that fail to meet cleanliness requirements
Operators of unlicensed food shops are fined up to five times their estimated illegally earned income.
"In cases related to food safety, penalties imposed should be severe enough to ruin a law-violating enterprise. . . . Ultimately, they will all obey the laws and regulations," said Hu.
(China Daily July 22, 2004)