UN urges overhaul of China's food safety system

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, Food, Foodborne illness

China must revamp its food safety system so that it is less disjointed and consumer confidence is restored, claims United Nations officials.

The UN issued a report yesterday calling for a unified regulatory agency to deal with food safety in China rather than the manifold government agencies that currently deal with the area.

The document was released as the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) reviews the draft law on food safety and it also follows China's recent melamine scandal where the industrial chemical was found to have been mixed into milk to give it the appearance of higher protein levels.

The deaths of four babies were linked to the contamination, at least 53,000 babies fell ill after drinking the tainted product, and subsequent global recalls of tainted Chinese dairy products greatly damaged the country’s food safety reputation.

Recommendations

The UN paper urges a more modern food safety law as well as the need for improved monitoring, inspection and enforcement; the need for education and training of employees in the food industry and enforcing agencies; and better standards to bring the country in line with international norms.

It said that, drawing on best international practices, China needs to:

  • Recognise that food control is a mutually shared responsibility among government, the food industry and consumers.
  • Maximize risk reduction by applying the principle of prevention as fully as possible throughout the farm-to-table continuum;
  • Develop risk-based food safety strategies using sound scientific risk assessment and best practices in risk management;
  • Establish holistic, integrated initiatives which target risks and impact on economic well-being; and
  • Establish emergency procedures for dealing with particular hazards such as recall of products.

"The most recent food safety incident is an example of what can go wrong, even within a system that has started to work on improvement,"​ said Dr Schlundt, director of the Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases, WHO Headquarters

"Our recommendations would address many of the problems China has already acknowledged," ​he added.

Responsibility

Meanwhile food safety experts, at a meeting held in China last month, said that the country must build a climate of responsibility among its food producers to protect consumers around the world from unsafe products.

Last month Weiming Jiang, president of DSM China, said that companies need to follow ‘basic business ethics’.

“Social responsibility is important. It’s a hearts and minds issue, not only a regulation issue,”​ explained Jiang, adding that companies in China need to learn about transparency.

He said that DSM has developed a system of reporting for its suppliers. “On top of reporting income, companies should also report their responsibility. We get our suppliers to sign a contract with us to report on how they monitor food safety.”

Robert Madelin, director general of the European Commission’s DG Sanco, also pointed to the weakness in China’s reporting system. “The law must be strengthened, as we learned in Europe, to put positive obligations on operators to check safety, a strong obligation to record…and a legal obligation that economic operators tell food safety officials. You check, record and tell.”

Related topics: Policy, Food safety, China, East Asia

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