China was set to review a draft law on food safety on Thursday, a day after the UN urged the country to enact stricter laws and replace its patchwork surveillance system to help restore public trust badly shaken by a spate of food safety scandals. The country's legislature, the National People's Congress, was scheduled to discuss a number of proposed laws, including a food safety law, in a meeting beginning on Thursday afternoon and concluding on Tuesday.
The meeting comes after the UN released a 30-page report saying China could boost public trust in its food safety standards by including more funding and training for food inspectors. "The national system needs urgent review and revision," UN Resident Coordinator in China Khalid Malik said at a Wednesday press conference in Beijing where the paper was made public. Most critically, China needs a unified regulatory agency, the report said, and a place consumers can go for reliable information. The task is now split between a half dozen government agencies, creating confusion and uneven enforcement.
"The maintenance of the public's confidence in the food they eat is likely to be best achieved if there were within government a single source of information on food safety and related matters," the UN paper said.
China has been trying to restore consumer confidence after authorities announced in September they had found the industrial chemical melamine, which is used to make plastics and fertilizer, in infant formula. The tainted milk powder has sickened more than 50,000 babies and been blamed for the deaths of four infants. Health experts say ingesting a small amount of melamine poses no danger, but in larger doses, the chemical can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure. Still, the scandal has prompted a string of recalls of Chinese-made milk and products containing milk in dozens of countries.
The United Nations report said China has a basic food hygiene law but it needs one law to cover the food chain from farm to table. "No law places clear responsibility on food enterprises for the production of safe products," it said.
China in April released the draft version of the law, which promised tough penalties including possible life imprisonment for makers of dangerous food products.
Makers of substandard food products could face fines, imprisonment and the confiscation of their production certificates. Fines range from US$731 to US$14,600, according to the draft, which also aims to improve monitoring of food and establish a recall system for unsafe products. No date has been set for when it will become law.
China last year ratcheted up inspections and tightened restrictions on food production and other industries, particularly exports, after manufacturers were found to have exported tainted cough syrup, toxic pet food and toys decorated with lead paint. Meanwhile, at home, consumers were alarmed by a series of domestic food scandals involving poisonous fish, tainted pork and egg yolks colored with a cancer-causing dye.
Despite the improvements, China is having trouble regulating its countless small and illegally run operations, which are often blamed for introducing illegal chemicals and food additives into the food chain. Authorities say melamine apparently ended up in dairy products after middlemen who collected milk from farmers and sold it to large dairy companies added the chemical.
The many other informal and unregistered producers are even harder to oversee and regulate, it said.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, said on Wednesday it has set new quality standards aimed at penetrating murky supply chains in China and elsewhere.
"We have to ask all our suppliers to take full responsibility," Mike Duke, vice chairman of Wal-Mart Stores Inc's international division, told The Associated Press in an interview. "Not ... just the factories or final production, but to go all the way upstream to look at any products, any raw materials that go in the products." He said the Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, China's largest foreign retailer and a major buyer of its shoes, toys and other goods, will apply the new standards to apparel first and eventually use them on all its products. He did not give any other details.