Will China's New Food-Safety Laws Work?

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People in Hubei province, China, line up to have their babies who drank tainted milk powder examined in a hospital on Sept. 17, 2008

After a series of safety scandals that killed Chinese citizens and degraded the international reputation of the country's exports, Beijing has approved a broad series of tougher food-safety laws. But given the difficulty in implementing laws in China, it's unclear whether the legislation will make China's food safer to eat.

The new regulations, approved by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, will raise safety standards, increase punishments and institute a system of risk evaluation that includes monitoring 500,000 companies, the state-run Xinhua news service reported on Feb. 28. Responsibility for food safety will be divided among the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, the State Food and Drug Administration and the ministries of health, agriculture, commerce and industry. Such division among several government bureaus has long been considered a shortcoming of the Chinese safety system, as various agencies have battled for control and potential revenue from fines. "It's a problem," says Hu Dinghuan, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. "There are too many responsible departments." He advocates putting more of the burden on the private sector. (Read "China's Melamine Woes Likely to Get Worse.")

What could be more problematic is the time it will take China to put the regulations into place. The law has been years in the making, and the government has delayed approval as it weighed how to incorporate lessons from the latest food-safety scandals. China has endured a series of such scandals in recent years, and often the country's youngest citizens have been the victims. Five years ago, 13 babies died of malnourishment in coastal Fujian province after they were fed formula that contained little or no nutritional value. Last year at least six infants died and some 300,000 were sickened after consuming milk made from powder contaminated with melamine, a chemical used in making plastics. Melamine added to a diluted or inferior milk can make its protein content appear artificially high. When consumed in large quantities, it can lead to formation of dangerous crystals in the kidneys that can result in organ failure.

The value of Chinese food exports has expanded by a factor of nearly 6 over the past two decades, from $4.5 billion in 1986 to $25.7 billion in 2006, and governments around the world are demanding that Beijing boost the safety of what it produces. In 2006, after more than 100 people died in Panama upon consuming cough medicine that contained toxic diethylene glycol from China, the mainland's food- and product-safety problems became an international concern. Adulterated wheat gluten from China was blamed for the death of thousands of pets in North America in 2007. That year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned several types of Chinese seafood that repeatedly tested positive for banned veterinary drugs. (Read "China's Consumers: Not Ready to Save the World.")

While the latest laws have been touted as a tough approach to food safety, China has already shown that it will take extreme measures against prominent violators. In 2007 the country executed Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of its State Food and Drug Administration, for accepting $850,000 in bribes from drug companies. In January, a Chinese court sentenced two people to death in the melamine milk-poisoning scandal. But China's health ministry acknowledged over the weekend that the food-safety situation remains grim.

Part of the problem is the unevenness of enforcement. While China boasts many practical and well-considered regulations, its legal system still struggles with corruption and a willingness of some local authorities to prioritize growth over health and safety. "I do consider the new law a good thing, but it will take time to implement it," says Hu Xiaosong, a professor at the China Agricultural University Food Safety Technological Center. "For example, we have had a traffic law for years, but to this day, there are still people jaywalking at every street corner. Don't expect the law will bring an immediate improvement in food safety."

— With reporting by Lin Yang / Beijing

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