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China to set up central food safety commission (02/25/09)

   BEIJING, Feb. 25 (Xinhua) -- China's State Council, or Cabinet, will set up a food safety commission to strengthen the country's food monitoring system, whose lack of efficiency has long been blamed for repeated food scandals.

  The decision was written in a draft law on food safety, which was submitted to the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, China's top legislature, on Wednesday and is likely to be voted on Saturday after a fourth reading.

  China's current food safety system involves at least five departments, including health, agriculture, quality supervision, industry and commerce administration, and food and drug supervision.

  The departments shoulder different responsibilities for food safety. For example, quality supervision administration monitors the food production sector. But when foods leave factories for sale, they are monitored by the industry and commerce administration.

  Liu Xirong, vice chairman of the NPC Law Committee, said even though the draft clearly defined the responsibilities of the departments, lawmakers still believed that one organization is needed to supervise and coordinate the work of those departments.

  "After serious study of the suggestion, the State Council decided to set up a food safety commission as a high-level coordinating organization," Liu said in an explanatory report to the lawmakers.

  However, the draft, which would be effective on June 1 this year once it was adopted, does not say what responsibilities the food safety commission would have. "Its function should be stipulated by the State Council," the draft says.

  The draft has been revised several times since it was submitted to the NPC Standing Committee for the first reading in December 2007. In April 2008, it was opened to public scrutiny and more than 11,000 submissions were made to the lawmaking body.

  Sources with the Commission for Legislative Affairs of the NPC Standing Committee said the draft had been expected to be voted by lawmakers last October, but the voting was postponed following the tainted dairy products scandal last September, in which at least six babies died and 290,000 others poisoned.

  "The tainted dairy scandal exposed the loopholes of the food safety monitoring network, the failure of the pre-warning, reporting, inspection systems," said a lawmaker, who declined to be named.

  Key revisions were made following the scandal. "Many focused on the monitoring system, which is also the most difficult part of the draft," he said.

  Other revisions included a ban on all chemicals and materials other than authorized additives in food production.

  The draft stipulates that "only those items proved to be safe and necessary in food production are allowed to be listed as food additives." Health authorities are responsible for assessing and approving food additives and regulating their usage.

  Food producers must strictly stick to the food additives and their usage previously approved by authorities, on penalty of closure or revocation of production licenses in serious cases, according to the draft.

  Producers of edible agricultural products are required to abide by food safety standards in using pesticide, fertilizer, growth regulators, veterinary drugs, feedstuff and feed additives and keep farming or breeding records.

  In the tainted dairy products scandal, melamine, often used in the manufacture of plastics, was added to substandard or diluted milk to make protein levels appear higher than they actually were.

  To better protect consumer rights, the draft bans food safety supervision and inspection agencies, food industry associations and consumers' associations from advertising food products.

  Individuals or social organizations are prohibited from advertising substandard food products. Those advertising such products would face joint liability for damages incurred.

  "The provisions were added out of concern over fake advertisements, which contained misleading information. Many of the advertisements featured celebrities," said Liu with the NPC Law Committee.

  Several Chinese celebrities had advertised for products of the Sanlu Group, a company at the epicenter of the tainted dairy product scandal. The celebrities, including actress Deng Jie, were vehemently criticized after thousands of babies were poisoned by the Sanlu formula.

  Many people posted online demands for them to apologize to and compensate families of the sickened babies. But others argued that it was unfair to blame the celebrities as Sanlu had legal documents to prove its products safe.

  Sanlu and other dairy companies, whose products were found to contain melamine, had been exempted from food inspections before the scandal.

  China began exempting companies producing globally competitive products from quality inspection in 2000 to help them avoid the burden of repeated examinations.

  Following the dairy scandal, China's quality watchdog cancelled all national inspection exemptions previously given to food producers.

  As a lesson from the tainted dairy scandal, the draft bans food safety supervision authorities from issuing inspection exemptions to food producers.



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