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U.N. Responds to Recent China Food Safety Scandal

Oct 23, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
UN Responds to China Food Safety

UN Asking For An Overhaul Of China's Food-Safety System

In the wake of the enormous melamine scandal originating out of China and affecting dairy products and foods containing dairy products on a global scale, United Nations (UN) officials are asking for an overhaul of China's food-safety system.  The U.N. says China’s current "disjointed" approach contributed to the” widespread adulteration of milk that sickened tens of thousands of children.”  The Chinese government's methods for protecting the food supply need "urgent review and revision," said Khalid Malik, the U.N.'s resident coordinator in Beijing, adding that the U.N. "stands ready to work closely" with Chinese officials on reforms.

While China has increased its scrutiny of milk production, tightening dairy controls and threatening to reveal offenders, its reliance on a jumble of agencies meant to enforce food safety rules worked against it and delayed the official response to the scandal.  The problem was only first publicized in September, weeks after local authorities had been advised of the emerging crisis.  Tens of thousands of children were sickened, at least four died, and over 5,000 remain hospitalized with kidney ailments according to China’s health ministry.  All ingested baby formula made with melamine-tainted powdered milk.

China's Legislature Draft A New Food-Safety Law

The standing committee of the National People's Congress—China's legislature—is scheduled to initiate discussions today on a draft of a new food-safety law designed to improve authorities' ability to trace and recall unsafe food.  Also, in a report issued yesterday, the U.N. praised China's recent efforts to improve food safety saying that, given the "sheer scale" of China's fragmented food industry, efforts to meet international standards would be "ongoing and arduous."  The report also recommended that China's leaders step up efforts to simplify and strengthen rules and regulations and to adopt broad legislation governing food safety from the farm to the table.

Jorgen Schlundt, the World Health Organization's (WHO) top food-safety official, said that the culprits in the melamine-adulteration case "exploited weaknesses" in China's regulatory system. The WHO is the U.N.'s public-health arm.  Schlundt said that a central problem is that under China's current approach, authority for food-safety enforcement is "dispersed" among too many agencies and government levels.  The report asks for a new regulation approach that would shift increased responsibility for food safety to manufacturers, requiring them to institute “risk-management measures,” which can, in turn, be audited by government inspectors.  "No government can ensure food safety" on its own, said Anthony Hazzard, the WHO's regional food-safety adviser for the western Pacific. "Companies need to be responsible for production and food safety," he said adding, “They need to look back along their supply chains" to make sure ingredients are safe.”  Hazzard pointed out that China's ability to ensure its food products’
safety increasingly affects its international trade.  "The ‘Made in China’ brand is important to protect," he noted

Chinese customs reports that China's exports of food and live animals nearly doubled, rising to $30.75 billion in 2007 from $18.6 billion in 2004.  Meanwhile, the U.N. report stated that China's regulatory agencies are often significantly under-funded and short-staffed, rendering them unable to carry out their assignments at times.

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