China Plans to Elevate Food, Drug Regulator to Ensure Safety

China unveiled a plan to elevate the food and drug regulator to a ministry-level body with broader powers, underpinning the government’s pledge to crack down on safety violations and better protect consumers.

The new body will be responsible for overseeing the safety and effectiveness of food and drugs produced, distributed and consumed in China, according to a plan handed out to reporters at a meeting of the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature, in Beijing today. A new health and family planning commission announced today will assess food risks and formulate safety standards, while the agriculture ministry will be in charge of the quality of farm products.

“It’s an extremely powerful issue in China right now, so there’s a lot of pressure on them to deal with food and drug safety effectively,” said Andrew Batson, Beijing-based research director for China-focused economic consultancy GK Dragonomics. “As China gets richer, the government is increasingly expected to not just deliver economic growth, but also an improving quality of life.”

Premier Wen Jiabao said in his annual work report to the National People’s Congress on March 5 that China will reform and perfect the nation’s safety supervision system for food and drugs. During his tenure the government faced safety scares ranging from tainted milk to fake medicines and chicken meat with excessive levels of antibiotics.

Fake Medicines

Li Keqiang, set to replace Wen at the end of the legislature’s annual session in Beijing this month, has also called for a crackdown on illegal food markets and prevention of safety risks. He was named in 2010 to head a food safety commission dealing with errant producers after a tainted milk scandal resulted in the death of at least six babies in 2008.

China in 2007 executed Zheng Xiaoyu after he was convicted of taking more than 6.5 million yuan ($1 million) in bribes and gifts while head of the food and drug regulator from 1998 to 2005. The regulator approved six types of fake medicines during his tenure, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

New Agency

The current State Food and Drug Administration, led by Commissioner Yin Li, is a regulatory agency overseen by the Ministry of Health. The new body will consolidate its previous role with the food and drug safety functions of the State Council’s food safety commission, the national quality regulator and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.

The National People’s Congress is scheduled to approve the plan March 14, according to an agenda for its annual meetings.

China’s growing middle class increasingly demands its government deliver safe food to eat and clean air to breath instead of just more economic growth, Batson said. In public opinions surveys, Chinese rank food safety as the important issue they’re most concerned about, above corruption, he said.

Safety Scandals

“There is a widespread perception in China that the food safety system is broken, even though it’s not obvious that it’s particularly worse than other developing countries,” he said.

In recent years, a series of food and drug safety scandals have grabbed national headlines. One of the worst cases involved infant formula adulterated with melamine, an industrial chemical that was used to boost protein levels in the milk. The poisoned formula was blamed for the deaths of the infants in 2008 while 300,000 fell ill.

Faith in China’s domestic milk powder hasn’t recovered. Hong Kong, the Chinese territory that’s governed under separate rules, has imposed limits on how much milk powder mainland visitors can buy after complaints their purchases were causing a local shortage.

Illegal Carcinogen

More recently, six government officials in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang were jailed after local manufacturers were found using an industrial gelatin laced with an illegal carcinogen to make drug capsules.

In January, China said it would offer rewards of as much as 300,000 yuan to whistle blowers to encourage them to come forward with tips on food and drug safety problems, Xinhua said.

Foreign companies have been affected as well. In late February Yum! Brands Inc., owner of the KFC food chain, pledged to ramp up safety and tighten requirements for suppliers in China to win back consumers after a probe by Chinese authorities into chicken providers dragged down local sales.

Shanghai Food and Drug Administration said on Dec. 20 tests conducted by a third-party agency from 2010 to 2011 found eight batches of chicken supplied to Yum by Liuhe Group Co. had antibiotics levels that didn’t meet prescribed standards.

— With assistance by Dingmin Zhang, and Xin Zhou

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