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Top Concern for Food Safety

Following a string of nationwide food problems in recent months, the State Council Wednesday 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," a statement from a State Council executive meeting in Beijing said. Premier Wen Jiabao presided over the meeting.

Despite the decline in the number of cases related to fake and shoddy foods, problems remain rampant in the market, calling for more conscientious measures to correct the hazards, the statement said.

The meeting heard a report from the State Food and Drug Administration. Details of the report were not immediately available.

But a Ministry of Health source Wednesday said food poisoning sickened 4,700 and killed 97 people in the second quarter of this year, a jump of 188.5 per cent and 64.4 per cent, respectively, over the first three months.

The most notorious case involved tainted milk powder in Fuyang, in East China's Anhui Province, which caused the death of a dozen babies.

The case, reported in April, aroused nationwide attention about food quality and safety.

Reiterating the central authorities' commitment to highlighting food safety, the meeting's statement said various agencies have been rectifying matters by eliminating illegal activities such as counterfeiting and making inferior food products.

As a result, the situation has started to improve.

The meeting appealed for greater efforts to increase the industrial safety levels and standardization in the country's food sector.

In addition to shutting down food processors that fail to meet safety standards, substandard products should be denied access to markets, the statement said.

As to farm produce, the meeting stressed pollution prevention should be done at the source of production, and a unified safety and quality regime should be established for agricultural products.

Also, supervision of food distribution should be stepped up, according to the meeting sources.

The State Council meeting also called for a crackdown on major criminal cases regarding food security and improving the functions of supervisory departments, grain associations and other intermediary bodies.

Experts said it is important to drastically increase penalties on those who give scant attention to food safety statutes.

Professor Hu Xiaosong of the China Agricultural University, said current penalties to those involved in churning out problem food are far from "costly" when compared to the profits they can make.

For example, in addition to issuing a warning to food processors failing to meet hygiene requirements, the Food Hygiene Law, enacted in 1995, prescribes a meager 5,000 yuan (US$602) fine.

As to those running unlicensed food shops, fines are based on the illegal incomes they have made -- up to five times their income.

"In cases related to food safety, penalties should be so imposed as to ruin a law-violating firm... in the end, all will be obeying the laws and regulations (in food safety)," said Hu.

(China Daily July 22, 2004)

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