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Food safety procedures tightened
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Chinese government yesterday unveiled major initiatives to ensure that imports, exports and domestic consumption of food conform to the highest standards.

To keep a stringent check on imports from the United States, China will send food and drug quality control officials to the country - following the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opening its offices in China, senior officials said.

To ensure the safety of domestic consumption, the government plans to set up three State-level food safety committees and two nationwide monitoring networks.

Health Minister Chen Zhu said the move to dispatch officials to the US was based on the "principle of equality".

"Following the opening of the three US FDA offices in China this week, we will also station our quality officials in the US in the near future," Chen said in Beijing at a joint press conference with his US counterpart Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The officials headed to the US will come from the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) and the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a separate briefing.

"We believe such arrangements (sending quality control officials to each other's country) will improve cooperation and communication in food and drug safety issues," Qin said.

No timetable has been set for the Chinese officials' posting, Chen said.

Yesterday's announcement came a day before the FDA opens its Beijing office, the first of three in China. The offices are the first outside the US, with two more planned for opening in India next month and two others in Latin America the month after.

The FDA's operations in China are expected to involve working directly with the AQSIQ, the SFDA and the Ministry of Health to build capacity, ensure standards and share inspection information.

"We're two different countries with two different regulatory systems, but we have one common goal to ensure the safety of our food for our citizens, whether it's domestic or imported," said US FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, who was also at yesterday's press conference.

"We're looking forward to a sharing of resources, a way of leveraging resources that will benefit not only our two countries but, as we have other international partners engaged, that we really will create a worldwide network that will essentially improve systems in all countries."

On the domestic front, Chen said the authorities will set up at least three State-level committees on food safety - for risk analysis, setting standards and food science studies - to complement other efforts.

Similarly, a national monitoring network on food production, distribution and consumption, as well as another at the county level to oversee food-borne diseases nationwide, will be set up, the Ministry of Health said in a statement released yesterday.

The central government is also mulling a coordination mechanism among various ministries to improve efficiency in food safety supervision. At least six departments are involved with food safety at present, causing an overlap of responsibilities and creating problems for law enforcement, the ministry said.

In a related development, the Foreign Ministry's Qin expressed dissatisfaction after the US issued an import alert last week against Chinese food and feed products that contain dairy ingredients. The US ordered the products to be stopped at its borders unless importers certify them to be either free of dairy products or melamine.

Qin said the Chinese government has been successful in its crackdown on melamine contamination and hoped the US could take "an objective and calm" approach to the issue.

"We feel deep regret that the US insists on unilaterally taking these steps," Qin said.

(China Daily November 19, 2008)

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