China's Bureaucracy Stymies Food
By Michael Lelyveld
Source of Article: http://www.rfa.org/english/energy_watch/food-safety-11042008154540.html
bureaucracy has impeded food safety regulation, according to U.N. officials,
while a new law would continue to divide responsibilities.
BOSTON--China's bureaucratic structure
has failed to ensure food safety while contamination cases continue to
spread, World Health Organization officials say.
In presenting a U.N. report on food safety on Oct. 22 in Beijing, WHO
officials were supportive of efforts to reform China's regulatory system but
critical of its response to the melamine scandal that has sickened over
53,000 infants who drank toxic milk formula.
"An old-fashioned system contributed to this event," said Jorgen Schlundt, director of WHO's
food safety department, in comments quoted by XFN-Asia news agency.
"A disjointed system with dispersed authority between ministries and
agencies resulted in poor communication and a prolonged outbreak with late
response," Dr. Schlundt said. "If there
had been better follow-up, this problem would not have been as severe."
The 29-page report, dated in March but released only last month, cites a
fractured system that divides responsibility for safety among a host of
These include separate ministries for health, agriculture, and commerce, as
well as the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), the State
Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC), and the General
Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ),
the U.N. report said.
As with other safety issues, such as environmental protection and conditions
at coal mines, reports of local problems may be slow to reach central
"In general, the food safety authorities at different levels are
directly responsible to their respective regional government body, but
receive instructions of a regulatory or technical nature from their national
agency," the report said.
Reporting was a key issue in the coverup of kidney
problems from formula made by the Sanlu Group,
which were traced to the use of the plastic-making compound melamine as a
protein substitute. The company first acknowledged the problems in September
after receiving complaints as far back as March, according to the Health
Local officials were among at least 25 individuals who have faced arrest or
dismissal in the case. In September, the director of GAQSIQ also resigned.
State Council investigators found melamine use among at least 22 dairy
On Oct. 29, the Health Ministry said that 2,390 infants remain hospitalized.
The toxic chemical has been blamed for four deaths. Many Chinese food
products have been recalled or banned in countries around the world.
Despite an international outcry, melamine problems continue to spread. Last
month, eggs sold in Hong Kong and several
Chinese cities were found to contain high concentrations of melamine.
Agriculture Ministry officials suspect the chemical was added to chicken
feed, state media said.
Adding melamine is believed to be common practice, the Guangzhou Daily
said on Oct. 29. The paper called for banning all illegal uses of the
chemical as part of a new draft food safety law.
"The fact that melamine has been found in eggs produced by different
farms suggests that the contamination cannot be an accidental case,"
said the official China Daily in a commentary on Oct. 31.
New draft law
new draft law on food safety, issued last month, would ban "even unharmful substances" from food unless they have
been approved as additives, the official Xinhua news agency said.
But it is unclear whether the law would do anything to end China's
bureaucratic conflicts. The draft only "asks the departments, especially
those at the grassroots level, to improve communication, cooperate closely
with each other and faithfully fulfill their legal responsibilities,"
In a Radio Free Asia phone interview from Geneva,
WHO senior scientist Peter Ben Embarek said China's
bureaucratic problems are similar to those found in other countries, but they
need to be addressed.
"For all kinds of historical reasons, food safety activities are
fragmented among different agencies, each covering one part of the food chain
from primary production all the way to consumers," said Dr. Ben Embarek.
"This is a problem because the information about what's in the food and
the sharing of data among all these agencies is not seamless and not
easy," he said. The result is unnecessary delay in reporting and
"Unless you have one integrated system that covers the entire food
chain, it's very difficult to really manage and ensure food safety in an
efficient manner," Dr. Ben Embarek said.
But it is unclear from the draft law whether the government intends to create
a single agency to manage the entire process or to shift any of the existing
responsibilities within ministries.
Dr. Ben Embarek defended the government's effort to
create a basic food safety law, saying it is needed as a framework for future
Michael Martin, Asia trade and finance analyst at the Congressional Research
Service of the Library of Congress in Washington,
told RFA that the question of conflicting interests has been "an issue
[for] many, many years in China."
"When you have local authorities reporting both to the ministries as
well as local government authorities, you create a dilemma for
officials," said Martin. "They have an incentive to keep the local
economy growing and vibrant. But on the other hand, at the ministry level,
they're supposed to be taking care of food safety."
The conflict may explain how widespread practices like adding melamine to
animal feed can continue to take place despite the publicity attached to
national food safety scandals.
"There are times when the local official may be a little more tolerant
or discerning about things because he or she doesn't want to be seen as
somehow blocking local economic development," Martin said.