Food safety

China's watchdogs might finally get more teeth

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Hu jintao, Food and drug administration

China's watchdogs might finally get more teeth
Sick of lurching from one food crisis to the next, it seems the Chinese authorities are planning to form one cohesive food safety unit based on America’s FDA model.

Currently, China’s State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) is mainly responsible for policies and programmes on the administration of drugs, health food, medical devices and cosmetics, and is affiliated to the Ministry of Health.

Foiled by fragmentation

However, the SFDA has regulatory counterparts across up to 13 different ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture, which steps in whenever animals are involved, and the Industry and Commerce Authority, which is responsible for packaging.

Food safety experts have for years complained that the nature of this multiple-agency set-up is destined to create blind spots and overlaps, in spite of some well-publicised nationwide crackdowns on problems such as tainted milk and counterfeit drugs.

It wasn’t intended for the mechanism to be so fragmented when the SFDA was launched in 2003. Back then, the ministerial-level agency directly under the State Council was intended to have much greater power. This was the case until 2006, when it was downgraded following a series of corruption scandals that saw its head, Zheng Xiaoyu convicted and executed for taking bribes.

Now, according to agencies and the South China Morning Post, the country is planning to streamline a complex regulatory system that has seemed powerless to prevent a string of food contamination scandals.

Rubber stamp

The annual session of the National People’s Congress, which will begin later this week, should approve the new ministerial-level body, which will follow the example of the US FDA by integrating regulation and law enforcement into the one agency.

The South China Morning Post cited a source familiar with the plan, who said: "It was already on the agenda of the State Council to integrate the food and drug safety departments under different government agencies after the melamine-tainted milk scandal in 2008, when at least six children were killed and 300,000 sickened with kidney diseases."

However, these plans were diluted to the point that only a food safety commission was established in 2010 as a temporary move to help food safety operations run more smoothly. 

The source said the backing of President Hu Jintao for "reforming and improving the food and drug safety supervision mechanism" in the 18th Party Congress Report last November gave the green light to the plan, which is subject to last-minute changes and might end up focusing solely on food safety.

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

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