Alexis Hooi

Ensuring food safety

By Alexis Hooi (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-09 08:00
Large Medium Small

Picking the right souvenir to bring back from China is always a tough decision when I head home for work or vacation. Especially when Chinese foodstuff has become one of the least popular gifts among my family and friends.

For the past few years, China's food industry has been hit by one major food scandal after another.

The one involving Chinese dairy products contaminated by the industrial chemical melamine that killed at least six children and sickened 300,000 others nationwide in 2008 recently resurfaced from milk powder that was not destroyed as planned.

For the past few months, cowpeas from Hainan province were also found to contain isocarbophos. The highly toxic pesticide is banned from use on fruit, tea, tobacco, vegetables and herbal plants, but has been detected in peas sold in several markets across the country.

That is also why the authorities are well aware of the urgency to boost food safety, with the latest shows of resolve seen during this year's top political advisory and legislative sessions.

The country is striving to establish a national food safety system in the wake of the 2008 baby formula scandal, Health Minister Chen Zhu said on the sidelines of the CPPCC session last week.

Many deputies of the National People's Congress (NPC) have also attached great importance to food safety this year. In a sign of how pervasive the problems in the industry are becoming, they have cited the lack of effective laws to regulate online food sources as one of the pressing concerns.

Zong Qinghou, the chairman of beverage giant Wahaha and an NPC deputy, said China must learn from other countries to centralize the management of food safety to avoid any confusion and conflict of interest among administrative agencies that are now ineffectively overseeing different aspects of the sector.

Even popular Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who is also a CPPCC member, went beyond the entertainment industry to urge the authorities to guarantee food safety in the country through better legislation.

From more draconian laws that are adequately enforced to tighter supervision at the local level and greater centralization in administration, calls heard at this year's two sessions for measures to beef up China's food safety will also be appreciated well beyond national shores.

Food exports from Guangdong province, one of the country's economic powerhouses, were valued at $400 million for the first 10 months of last year alone to mark a year-year-increase of 2.7 percent, customs figures showed.

But flaws in the country's food safety system must be fixed to move Chinese food products beyond their labels as cheap and common goods that fill the most basic demands.

Only then will they become items that are really sought after by buyers at home and abroad.