U.N. Criticizes China on Food Safety

(Wall Street Journal China)

By GORDON FAIRCLOUGH

 

United Nations officials called for an overhaul of China's food-safety system, saying the country's current "disjointed" approach has contributed to the widespread adulteration of milk that sickened tens of thousands of children.

 

China's reliance on a welter of agencies to enforce food-safety rules also delayed the official response to the crisis, first made public by the central government in early September, weeks after local authorities had been alerted to the problem.

 

The Chinese government's methods for protecting the food supply need "urgent review and revision," said Khalid Malik, the U.N.'s resident coordinator in Beijing. He said the U.N. "stands ready to work closely" with Chinese officials on reforms.

 

At least three children have died and more than 5,000 remained hospitalized with kidney ailments last week, according to the health ministry. All had been fed baby formula made with powdered milk containing the industrial chemical melamine.

 

The standing committee of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, is scheduled to begin discussions Thursday on a draft of a new food-safety law designed, among other things, to improve authorities' ability to trace and recall unsafe food.

 

In a report issued Wednesday, the U.N. applauded China's efforts to improve food safety recently and said that, given the "sheer scale" of China's fragmented food industry, efforts to meet international standards would be "ongoing and arduous."

 

But the report urged China's leaders to do more to streamline and strengthen rules and regulations and to adopt overarching legislation governing food safety all the way from the farm to consumers' tables.

 

The culprits in the melamine-adulteration case "exploited weaknesses" in China's regulatory system, said Jorgen Schlundt, the World Health Organization's top food-safety official. The WHO is the U.N.'s public-health arm.

 

A central problem, Mr. Schlundt said, is that under China's current approach, authority for food-safety enforcement is "dispersed" among too many agencies and different levels of government.

 

The report urges a new approach to regulation that would shift more responsibility for safety onto food manufacturers, requiring them to institute risk-management measures, which can then be audited by government inspectors.

 

"No government can ensure food safety" on its own, said Anthony Hazzard, the WHO's regional food-safety adviser for the western Pacific. "Companies need to be responsible for production and food safety," he said. "They need to look back along their supply chains" to make sure ingredients are safe.

 

Mr. Hazzard said that China's ability to ensure the safety of its food products increasingly affects the country's international trade as well. "The Made in China brand is important to protect," Mr. Hazzard said.

 

China's exports of food and live animals rose to $30.75 billion in 2007 from $18.6 billion in 2004, according to Chinese customs.

 

The U.N. report said China's regulatory agencies are often underfunded and short-staffed, sometimes so significantly that they are unable to carry out their assignments. 10-23-08

 

 

 

 

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