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Draft food safety law approved
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The State Council, China's Cabinet, yesterday approved in principle a draft food safety law to raise standards and regulate supervision.

World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan (left) and Li Changjiang, head of China's product-quality watchdog, address the media yesterday in Beijing. The WHO chief praised China's moves to crack down on food-safety problems as the country stepped up efforts in recent months to clamp down on shoddy and dangerous goods.

"Food safety is vital to improving people's lives and health, so legislation must match national efforts of safeguarding food safety," said Premier Wen Jiabao.

The draft law was discussed at yesterday's executive meeting of the State Council, which was presided over by Wen.

"The draft bill covers food production, processing, consumption and regulation," the country's quality watchdog chief Li Changjiang said while meeting the visiting World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan.

Li said the draft would be submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) for further review, but he would not give details or a timetable.

An announcement on the central government's website said the law mandates better release of information about food safety issues, higher fines for errant firms and punishment of officials who act irresponsibly; and guarantees the public's right to compensation and to sue.

The announcement also said the law requires the establishment of a food safety risk analysis and monitoring system, as well as closer checks of food imports and exports.

"I believe that the promulgation of this law will effectively improve China's food safety situation and ensure food safety and people's health," said Li, minister of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.

Chan told Li that she was happy with the action China had taken to raise standards. "I'm confident that the way forward will be good for the world and for China. This is exactly what we are looking to you for - strengthened efforts," she said.

The quality of Chinese goods has come under international scrutiny following a spate of safety scares around the globe involving Chinese products ranging from pet food to seafood and toothpaste to toys.

The Chinese government said those were isolated problems but has also taken a series of measures to tighten checks and punish illegal activities.

Meanwhile, there has been a growing voice asking for the revision of the Food Hygiene Law, which was adopted 12 years ago, or the formulation of a food safety law to offer the current food safety campaign legislative backing.

Chen Junshi, a senior researcher with the National Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety who has been involved in the legislation, said lawmakers had, after heated debate, reached consensus that a new law would be better.

"It is clear that the food safety bill, if passed, will replace the existing Food Hygiene Law," Chen told China Daily.

The NPC Standing Committee would not reveal when the draft law would be tabled for the first review, but its legislative plan released earlier this year has scheduled the reading of the amendment to the Food Hygiene Law for late next month.

Experts said they welcome the new draft law but expressed concern that the bill fails to touch on the restructuring of the current food safety supervision mechanism.

Food safety is currently overseen by at least six major government departments, resulting in overlapping responsibility and law enforcement.

However, Chen said the reform of the current mechanism is difficult because it might affect the interests of some government agencies.

"The draft law doesn't change any of the existing supervision system. It only stipulates that the State Council has the power to change it in the future," he said.

"We expect the next government, to be in power next March, to make some concrete changes in reforming the system."

(China Daily November 1, 2007)

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