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No Double Standards for Food Safety

Late last month, the municipal government of Shenzhen shut down a kitchen used by leading US ice cream maker Haagan-Dazs after finding it lacked a permit and failed to meet sanitation standards.

This year, news report after news report has concerned dangerous food being sold by big companies in the Chinese market.

Most of these foods are very popular among Chinese children because they carry big multinational brands, which have a good reputation in the West.

On March 15 this year, the environmental group Greenpeace claimed two international brands from leading US food manufacturers, Kraft's Ritz biscuits and Campbell's corn soup, contained genetically engineered (GE) soybeans. The group accused the food makers of having "double standards" in their GE food policy.

Kraft and Campbell's Soup had previously committed to not using GE ingredients in Europe, but hadn't done so in China, Greenpeace claimed.

Health and environmental concerns over genetically modified (GM) crops manifested themselves in Chinese regulations implemented in 2002. The rules require all foods derived from GM crops to be labelled as such, as people are concerned a lack of knowledge about potential health risks coming from eating GM food makes it dangerous.

Two days after the news about Ritz biscuits, the front page of the Beijing Evening News was plastered with a large headline and photo concerning KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). The company openly admitted that Sudan I - a red, chemical dye thought to contribute to cancer - had been discovered in two products sold in China: the "New Orleans Roast Chicken Wings" and the "New Orleans Roast Chicken Legs."

Next was Nestle, the Swiss food Goliath. The company finally issued a public apology in China in early June for having excess iodine levels in some of the milk powder it sells for infants and young children. Nestle stressed that the affected milk powder, detected on May 25, had already been withdrawn from store shelves.

Who's next? The vulnerability of the world's food chain bought about by globalisation is self-evident. Sudan I led to food recalls not only in China, but also in the United Kingdom. The red dye also spread to some other international and Chinese businesses in this country. International food maker Heinz has, reportedly, recalled chilli sauces and chilli oils that may contain the harmful and illegal red dye.

Sudan 1 to IV are classified as carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and are banned under European Union regulations.

But are these international companies guilty of double standards?

Various health experts at home and abroad have said that the food crisis has proved to be nothing more than the proverbial storm in a teacup.

They say more than 70 per cent of China's 106,000 registered food makers are small family businesses hiring less than 10 people, and at least 60 per cent of these cannot meet the most basic sanitary standards. For them, both external and internal regulations are difficult.

But what's the excuse of multinational food makers in China's market? They are in a privileged position to promise greater guarantees of food safety in China as they have done in the West.

For China's multitude of food safety watchdogs, now is a good time to reflect on their role. Are they executing their roles in a diverse and efficient way? Sometimes they are not.

What's interesting to note about the current food safety storms - whether they be about GM food, Sudan I, iodine levels, fluoride or sanitation standards - is that most of them were triggered by similar alarms overseas.

At present, there are around 10 departments involved in food safety supervision, including agriculture, quality inspection, health, trade and commerce, drug supervision, urban planning, quarantine, to say nothing of the Public Security Bureau if public health is at risk.

This is partly due to the fact that the entire process of food production, from the purchase of raw and processed materials to the delivery of the finished product, has to be relegated to different departments, for food production is a highly specialized process requiring specialized supervision.

This has led to overlapping and oversight in food safety inspection. As these departments are focused on different aspects of food production, they themselves are responsible for writing relevant local standards and regulations. But there is a lack of unified supervision and control. For instance, some moon-cake manufacturers complain that during the mid-Autumn Festival period, they are subject to repeated inspections from several different departments.

When there are returns to be had, everyone wants a share. Otherwise no one wants to be involved, and when problems arise, they pass the responsibility to others.

China is looking forward to the day a food supervision and recall system has been well established nationwide along with legislative improvement. At that time, both Chinese food safety watchdogs and consumers should no longer need to crane their heads from windows to see what their overseas counterparts are doing, and then follow suit.

Chinese parents will then no longer have to worry if their children are in danger of eating polluted food. And I believe that day is foreseeable, because the central government is already taking effective measures.

"China's food safety authority is busy updating existing standards, and with the increasing use of new materials and new technology, we feel compelled to come up with new standards," said Dr Zhang Renwei from the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration (SFDA).

Take standards for food additives and GM products. New standards in these areas need to be based on assessment and data, two areas where China is still quite weak, Zhang said. "The most we can do is to learn from the mature practice of developed countries."

(China Daily July 9, 2005)

Food, Drug Supervision Stressed
Haagen-Dazs to Be Fined 50,000 Yuan
Häagen-Dazs Sorry for Substandard Operation
Govt Vows to Ensure Food, Drug Safety
Sudan I Inspection Standard to Be Established
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