Food safety, drugs targeted in overhaul

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2008, 12:00am

NPC to back revamp of ministries

China's scandal-plagued food and drug watchdog will be scrapped and the largely toothless ministry overseeing the property sector will be given more bite as part of extensive restructuring of the central government, according to sources involved in the plans.

The proposal to streamline the government is expected to get the go-ahead at the National People's Congress, which starts on Wednesday.

The overhaul will also see the Ministry of Personnel merge with the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. A new 'mega ministry' - probably called the ministry of human resources and social security - will cover the interrelated portfolios of personnel management, labour and social welfare. A department devoted to supervising the country's ever growing civil service will be set up within the ministry.

The State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), whose former head Zheng Xiaoyu was executed last year for accepting bribes in exchange for approving substandard medicines, will be integrated into the Ministry of Health. Sources said the move was aimed at bringing more integration within the mainland's fractured food regulatory system to boost its troubled safety record.

Under Zheng's tenure, from 1998 to 2005, at least six approved drugs turned out to be fakes, and one contaminated antibiotic was blamed for killing at least 10 people, including a young girl.

The weaknesses in the food-and-drug monitoring system go well beyond corruption. The lack of a well- co-ordinated regulatory mechanism is considered a key defect underpinning the mainland's perennial food-and-drug safety woes. Those problems are drawing international concern as a growing number of mainland exports are found tainted with dangerous chemicals and toxins.

'China's current food regulation is too fragmented,' said Liu Guoen, a professor of public health at Peking University.

Responsibilities are now scattered among at least six agencies: the State Food and Drug Administration, Health Ministry, Agriculture Ministry, Commerce Ministry, State Administration of Industry and Commerce and the General Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine.

A new 'mega health ministry' would serve to strengthen food safety supervision by co-ordinating the duties of competing government agencies, Professor Liu said.

The central leadership is also considering reorganising the Ministry of Construction to give it more teeth to regulate the country's runaway housing market, according to sources. The restructured body, probably called the ministry of housing and urban, rural planning, would be responsible for guaranteeing affordable housing for low-income residents and monitoring the use of public housing funds.

Guo Xiaowu, a senior analyst with Xiamen University's Real Estate Research Centre, said the ministry had struggled to carry out such duties because of a lack of authority and staff. The ministry had been largely impotent in reining in rising housing prices, a source of social discontent, as it was caught up in a power play between senior officials in Beijing, property developers and local officials.

'It did not have much say over property policy-making and often found itself having to turn to the State Council to co-ordinate related central government agencies to enforce implementation of regulations,' Professor Guo said.

These changes are part of a large-scale reorganisation that will see the creation of at least two other 'super ministries' - covering transport and industry and information - and the upgrading of the environmental watchdog to full cabinet level.