Too many cooks fail to ensure safe food standards

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2005, 12:00am

Lack of departmental co-ordination leaves gaping loopholes

The mainland's efforts to enhance food security - mounted by 14 supervisory departments with a million staff - have failed to check unscrupulous operators emboldened by the prospect of immense profits.

Experts say only consumers can halt these operations by shunning their products.

'Profit margins are so high, businessmen go all out to look for loopholes in government [regulations]. The government can only issue directives and organise campaigns to deal with the problem, but it is hard to control them,' said Guo Weiqing , an expert on government at Sun Yat-sen University.

'There are more than 10 government departments responsible for food safety. It's hard to co-ordinate two or three departments, let alone more than 10, because they are all of equal standing and do not respect each other's authority,' Professor Guo said.

The central government created the Chinese equivalent of the United States' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2003, increasing the number of supervisory departments to 14.

As if the 14 departments were not enough, Guangdong yesterday announced the creation of yet another commission, comprising 13 scholars and 14 government representatives, to study the problem.

While Professor Guo welcomed the new commission, saying the experts could make authoritative contributions when a food safety problem cropped up, he said it could not be counted on to improve supervision.

'I feel that the government should let go and instead guide people to operate in a fair and competitive environment,' he said.

To justify their existence, the various supervisory departments issue licences, ostensibly to control the industry, but in fact, licence fees have turned into money spinners for the respective issuers.

Meanwhile, fines are too light to be a deterrent. Profit margins of up to 300 per cent and protection by local authorities invite unethical producers and processors to thumb their noses at jail terms of just three to five years for violations of the food safety law.

Unscrupulous businessmen use steroids and antibiotics to raise fish and animals, and carcinogenic additives to process products to enhance colour and taste and extend shelf life.

The sheer numbers - in the tens of thousands - of these largely family-based businesses render supervisory efforts futile.

Zhang Binggui , a researcher at the food safety section of the Guangdong FDA, said about 70 per cent of processing factories hired 10 workers or fewer, making it hard for enforcers to cover them all.

Dang Zhi , the deputy head of South China University of Technology's faculty of environmental science and engineering, said the problem was just one of the reasons for food contamination.

'The main reason is that our agricultural land and fish ponds are badly polluted as a result of mining activities and the use of pesticides and fertilisers,' Professor Dang said.

Nationwide, 20 million hectares of agricultural land have been contaminated by heavy metals - or 20 per cent of the total arable land. In the Pearl River Delta, 40 per cent of agricultural land is contaminated, of which 10 per cent is severely contaminated, while 20 per cent of irrigation water is polluted.

Since last year, Professor Dang's faculty has been working on a project to find plants that can absorb harmful chemicals, but he said there were only 400 such species and their biomass was too small.

His department also suggested to the Hong Kong-Guangdong Co-operation Joint Conference that it look at introducing a portable analysis kit that consumers could take to the market to put pressure on producers to meet safety standards. But experts thought such kits would be too expensive and difficult to use.

Mr Zhang said the FDA was pushing for supermarkets to stock safe food products, and trying to nurture a supermarket culture among consumers that would kill off the hawker trade.

The government also had to nurture big food companies to build their own brands, becoming more quality conscious, and to encourage collective purchasing so one big buyer could, for example, dictate to its suppliers when and how much fertiliser they should use.

The power of consumers proved too much for at least one mainland food company this year. Leading milk brand Everbright saw its market share shrink by up to 70 per cent after the media exposed the recycling of expired milk at one of its factories.

Additional reporting by Ivan Zhai