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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 July 2007, 14:01 GMT 15:01 UK
China tackles tainted food crisis
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Chinese market shopper
Chinese consumers are now less likely to put up with shoddy goods
Chinese officials admit they have failed to properly protect the public following a spate of health scares involving tainted food and medicines.

Over recent months, these scares have involved toothpaste, pet food ingredients, a leukaemia drug and a seemingly endless list of other products.

China fears this issue could lead to social unrest at home from disgruntled consumers, and could tarnish its international reputation.

It is now promising to tighten supervision of the food and medicine industries.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Chinese officials made it clear the country has not done enough to protect consumers.

"China's current food and drug safety situation is not very satisfactory," read a statement issued at the event, held to detail China's plans to improve that situation.

It went on to say that sorting out this problem will not be easy because China is a developing country that does not have a long history of quality control.

Impact

Figures released by the government hint at just how difficult it will be to ensure products consumed at home and abroad are safe.

In the first six months of this year alone, the government uncovered 34,400 separate cases involving the production or sale of sub-standard food products.

CHINESE FOOD SCARES
May 2007 China probes reports that contaminated toothpaste was sent to the Americas
March 2007 Melamine is found in wheat gluten exports from China for use in pet food, prompting a recall of at least 100 pet food brands
Nov 2006 A dye farmers fed to ducks to make their eggs look fresher is found to contain cancer-causing properties, and 5,000 ducks are culled
August 2006 About 40 people in Beijing contract meningitis after eating partially cooked snails at a chain of restaurants

Despite the difficulties, China realises it must tackle the problem, not least to protect the reputation of its exports.

A few days ago, Sun Xianze, an official with the State Food and Drug Administration, said: "The food problems have damaged our national credibility and image."

Health scares could also have an effect closer to home, as Mr Sun acknowledged.

"Food safety accidents and individual cases will not only affect the healthy development of the industry, but could also impact local economies and social stability," he said.

This is particularly true now, a time when Chinese people are more aware of their rights and less willing to put up with shoddy standards.

China's determination to get tough is perhaps reflected in the execution of the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, for taking bribes.

A harsh sentence shows the government is serious about regaining public trust on this issue.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang admitted as much at a regular press briefing on Tuesday following the execution.

Poor population

But establishing an effective supervision mechanism will not be easy, as was revealed at Tuesday's press conference to outline future plans.

The event was hosted by the five government departments that have main responsibility for food and drug supervision.

Chinese government food and drug officials hold a press conference - 10/07/07
Food and drug officials say they are determined to make changes

But this work also involves many other government bodies and liaison groups. It is not entirely clear how these departments will work together.

And there are other corrupt officials willing to bend the rules to allow unsafe food and medicines onto the market.

Just last week another senior official from the State Food and Drug Administration, Cao Wenzhuang, was given a suspended death sentence for taking bribes.

Perhaps it is not surprising that China, which still has tens of millions of people living on less than $1 a day, has poor quality food and medicines.

Zhang Yanqiu, an official with the Chinese agricultural ministry, says the country had first to ensure its population is fed before worrying about food standards.

That might have been a good enough answer before but times, and standards, have now changed.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Reaction to the execution of Zheng Xiaoyu



SEE ALSO
China food safety head executed
10 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Death penalty for China official
29 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Fifth of China goods sub-standard
04 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
US checks toothpaste for toxins
24 May 07 |  Americas
China cracks down on food safety
09 May 07 |  Business
China tightens net on fake drugs
09 Feb 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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