The United Nations launched in Beijing on Wednesday a paper on food safety in China, giving recommendations on where the country could focus its energy in making improvements in the food safety system.
The paper was released a day before the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress' (NPC) review of a draft law on food safety.
"Food safety systems are always a work in progress, but there are certainly key areas where China can focus for improvement," said Jorgen Schlundt, director of the Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Food borne Diseases, World Health Organization (WHO) Headquarters.
In spite of the achievements in the quality and safety of both exported foods and that for domestic consumption in the country, the paper recognized that "the sheer scale of China's food industry makes the task of aligning all Chinese food products with international standards an ongoing and arduous one."
"Without considering food service establishments, there are currently around 450,000 different enterprises engaged in food production and processing in China. Of these, around 350,000 are small enterprises with less than 10 employees which have a collective market share of less than 10 percent but present many of the greatest food safety challenges," said the paper.
Drawing on the experience and expertise of various UN agencies, the paper set out an in-depth analysis of the food safety situation in China. It put forward proposals for improving the system as the country moves forward in the fields of food safety legislation, management, inspection and enforcement, trade dimensions, monitoring and surveillance, communication and international cooperation.
The paper highlighted key challenges surrounding the need for a more modern food safety law and ambiguities over management and supervisory responsibilities within the food safety system.
"There needs to be one food law that governs all aspects of the food safety system, which moves from a 'command and control' approach to a risk-based regulatory approach where industry is responsible for demonstrating compliance rather than regulators having to prove non-compliance," said Anthony Hazzard, a WHO expert on food safety.
Coordination is another focus.
"There remains a situation where a relatively large number of agencies are involved in the area of food safety with overlapping responsibilities but without any practical and effective means of coordinating the development of policy of its implementation," he said.
"A disjointed system with dispersed authority between different ministries and agencies resulted in poor communication and a prolonged outbreak with late response. A coherent system covering the full farm-to-table food production continuum would most likely have ensured quicker intervention," said Schlundt, adding "a one-string system needs to be put in place."
The paper recommended an "integrated model" be adopted in supervising food safety, where agencies across the farm-to-table continuum are able to achieve effective collaboration and coordination.
"In this case, the Ministry of Health should be guaranteed more power and human resources to play its role of a central coordinating agency," Hazzard said.
In China, the principal government authorities that share responsibilities for food safety control include the State Food and Drug Administration, the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, State Administration, State Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, and the Ministry of Commerce.
(Xinhua News Agency October 23, 2008)