China Needs to Revamp Food Safety After Milk Crisis: UN

by Rajashri on Oct 23 2008 1:12 PM

The United Nations said on Wednesday that China needs to revamp its food safety system, arguing an outdated and disjointed approach may have worsened a crisis over contaminated milk that killed four babies.

In a new report on food safety in China, the UN urged Beijing to adopt a "modern" food safety law and introduce other measures that would help build trust in the government's ability to ensure the nation's food was safe.

"The present system is managed by several laws and an old philosophy that government is responsible for everything," Jorgen Schlundt, the director of the UN's World Health Organisation department of food safety, told journalists.

"We have to change that kind of philosophy because we need the food producers to be responsible for food safety," he said.

The report was issued as China continued to deal with the fall-out of a scandal in which the industrial chemical melamine was found to have been commonly mixed into milk to give it the appearance of higher protein levels.

Four babies died and at least 53,000 babies fell ill after drinking tainted milk powder, and contaminated Chinese dairy products have been recalled around the world, once again tarnishing the global image of the "Made in China" brand.

Although at least one Chinese dairy firm knew of the scam for months, it did not immediately report it to local government officials, who in turn delayed passing on the news for nearly a month until after the Beijing Olympics.

"In this incident we see that an old-fashioned system contributed to the event," Schlundt said of the milk scandal.

"This disjointed system with disjointed authority between different ministries and agencies had resulted in broken communication and may have prolonged the outbreak with a late response."

The report warned that the public could lose faith in the current system.

"The public is best served by a single consistent authoritative source of advice they can trust," the report said on the disjointed communication in China's food safety system.

"In some sensitive and difficult areas, different government departments have sometimes announced different views, advice and actions to be taken by the public ... the effect of this can only serve to undermine public confidence in the government's ability to manage food safety."

The report called on China to set up a unified and enforceable system capable of ensuring product safety from farm to table, and which would highlight the responsibilities of producers to make safe food.

China needed to educate its companies to better understand the role they played in building market confidence both domestically and abroad, Schlundt said.

The UN report further said China's current method of testing millions of food products to determine if they were safe was "wasteful of resources and both inefficient and ineffective".

China needed to focus food safety inspections on areas of known risks in the production chain and set up analysis and control points around them, Schlundt said.

China's food safety enforcement was "ad hoc without any overall strategy," while inspections ignored small enterprises along the value chain as well as remote areas in the nation's countryside, it said.

In the latest global developments concerning the milk scandal, authorities in the Philippines said Wednesday two Chinese-made dairy products sold there had been tainted with melamine .

And South Korea said powdered egg and other processed egg products from China had been found to contain small traces of the chemical.