Saturday, October 25, 2008

Trying to Revamp the System

The National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee is looking at a draft bill on food safety these few days.

It was written in light of problems last year with pet food contaminated with melamine, but now with the recent milk food scandal, more observers are watching what lawmakers plan to do.

One body trying to influence the government is the United Nations which came out with a scathing report just before the NPC began its third review of the draft law.

It criticized China's archaic and disjointed food safety system for the dairy product scandal that has killed four babies and left over 54,000 sickened.

Also poor communication and uncoordinated enforcement by government agencies exacerbated the problem.

"An old-fashioned system contributed to this event," said Jorgen Schlundt, food-safety director at the World Health Organization, the UN's health agency.

"Culprits exploited weaknesses in the system to adulterate a food product to increase profits. ... A disjointed system with dispersed authority between different ministries and agencies resulted in poor communication and a prolonged outbreak with late response."

The report recommends China shift more of the responsibility on food producers, saying that milk producers should have known melamine was added to raw milk.

If the system was more organized, the problem would have been detected earlier, says UN food experts, and then the government would have been able to contain the situation.

However, the huge problem is that three-quarters of the 450,000 food producers in China have 10 or fewer employees.

How can these tiny companies ensure quality standards?

The government will have to look at somehow pushing these small groups to amalgamate into bigger operations.

In a way the new rural reforms will help bring about this, albeit slowly.

Another big problem is that several government bodies are somehow responsible for food safety. As a result, overlapping responsibilities leads to political conflicts that are not needed in times of life and death.

The government again needs to revamp its ministries so that one or two agencies are responsible and more onus put on them to make sure farms, factories and the like are inspected.

This also leads to the problem of not enough qualified inspectors who are paid well enough not to look the other way. If the new draft law does not establish a solid system of inspection, critics say this is not enough to tackle the heart of the problem.

"Though the latest draft has made some to-the-point changes, it's a pity that it fails to reform the supervision process," said Chen Junshi, a senior researcher with the National Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety. "If that mechanism is not changed, supervision won't be effective because coordination among government agencies will remain difficult."

It's a huge undertaking for China, but it must be done otherwise the public will not trust the government in making sure the food they eat is safe.

1 comment:

ks said...

china nneds to revamp its food and drugs inspection/control. needs to learn from u.s or canada requiring much stricter control of quality and purity of its products in general also.