UN and Wal-Mart highlight China food safety concerns
Source of Article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/oct/22/china
A Chinese trade
enforcement officer checks boxes of milk at a shop in Tongzi, Guizhou province. Photograph:
The safety of Chinese products
was under the spotlight again today as the UN called for "urgent
revision" of the country's food supervision system and Wal-Mart, the
world's largest retailer, pledged to crack down on unscrupulous suppliers.
China has seen a spate of safety scares over
goods ranging from dumplings to toys, and is already battling to shore up its
exports in the face of an appreciating currency and the global downturn.
In the most recent scandal,
milk products contaminated with the chemical melamine killed four babies and
left tens of thousands ill. There were product recalls and export bans around
In a report released today, the
United Nations warns that China's
food exports could plummet without changes including an overarching watchdog
and a single food safety law covering the "farm-to-fork" journey.
"The national system needs
urgent review and revision," said Khalid Malik,
the UN's resident coordinator for China.
The report warns that at
present the onus is on officials to prove there is a problem, rather than on
businesses to ensure their products are safe. It highlights weaknesses in
monitoring and says poor coordination means different government departments
sometimes give the public different advice.
the World Health Organisation's food safety chief,
said the melamine case showed "that a disjointed system with dispersed
authority resulted in poor communication and maybe prolonged [the] outbreak
with a late response".
Today it emerged that three
more children in the Chinese territory of Macau have developed kidney stones
after drinking milk from the companies involved; Hong Kong officials have
found cake containing "excessive" amounts of melamine; and South
Korea has destroyed 23 tonnes of tainted
Chinese-processed egg products.
Yesterday the Associated Press
reported that 1,500 dogs in China
had died after eating melamine-tainted feed.
The chemical, often used in
plastic and fertilisers, should not be added to
food. Suppliers use it to hide the fact that they have illicitly watered down
milk, which when tested will seem like it contains normal levels of protein.
The UN report warns that safety concerns could threaten China's food
exports, which reached $27bn (£16.5bn) in 2006. It acknowledges that China's level of substandard exports is
relatively low compared to those of other countries, and that China is
overhauling its food safety regime.
Wal-Mart, which buys around
$9bn of goods from China
annually, has announced rigorous new standards for suppliers covering issues
from product quality to working conditions and environmental sustainability.
Among the measures are a pledge
to drive returns on defective merchandise "virtually out of
existence" by 2012 and a promise to slash energy use in stores.
Suppliers will have to tell the company the name and location of every
factory they use.
"I firmly believe that a
company that cheats on overtime and on the age of its labour,
that dumps its scraps and chemicals in our rivers, that does not pay its
taxes or honour its contracts, will ultimately
cheat on the quality of its products," said Lee Scott, the company's
chief executive, speaking in Beijing at a specially convened conference for
The company was built on
rock-bottom prices, but Scott acknowledged it was "very likely"
some of the changes would result in higher prices in stores, lower profits
for the company and smaller margins for suppliers.
"When we have bought
overseas, we have purchased historically in a very transactional manner. We
need deeper, longer-term relationships with suppliers so they are not based
upon the last penny but provide a quality product at a very good price.
"Will there be people
today, who subcontract to factories we should never have brought from, who go
Wal-Mart is regularly accused
of squeezing suppliers on cost, resulting in contractors pushing down wages.
Unions are not allowed in Wal-Mart's US stores. It is the single
biggest US importer of
Chinese goods, and owns more than 100 stores in China
itself as well as the Asda chain in Britain.
Wal-Mart said the rules would
initially apply to clothing and then be rolled out to all areas and countries