US experts helping mainland make food safer, official reveals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 December, 2008, 12:00am

A team of American experts is in Beijing to help mainland authorities improve food-safety regulations in the wake of the tainted-milk crisis, the US secretary of agriculture said yesterday.

'We have at the US embassy in Beijing a working group on food safety,' Ed Schafer said in Shanghai. 'They are not working with the main Chinese national authorities, but more the local authorities ... such as at the ports.'

He said that although the mainland had experienced problems with food safety recently - including the contamination of milk products with the industrial chemical melamine, which resulted in the deaths of at least six babies and made thousands more ill - the incidents would 'open the door to improvements to ensure consumers can have confidence in the food-safety system'.

He said strong consumer confidence in food was 'the basis of agricultural trade', and it was important for the mainland to develop a fully transparent and reliable system to police it, similar to the one the US had established.

'The United States has stopped shipment of Chinese milk and milk products,' he said. 'But US consumers know that when we do allow those products back in, it will be because we have been satisfied there is no longer a problem.'

As two of the world's biggest agricultural producers, China and the US had a responsibility to promote free trade and improve food-safety regulation, he said.

Beijing should apply the regulations as stringently to domestic products as it did to imports from overseas, he added.

'World Trade Organisation rules state that countries must treat domestic and foreign suppliers in the same manner,' he said. 'If, as an example, a country imposes strong requirements on an imported product but does not require it locally, then it puts the imported product at an economic disadvantage.'

Mr Schafer was in Shanghai on a one-day stopover on his way back from the 'strategic economic dialogue' in Beijing.

He was speaking on the last day of the 12th International Exhibition for Food, Drink, Hospitality, Foodservice, Bakery and Retail Industries, at which he toured stands in the US section. With stands from 49 exhibitors, the US pavilion was the third-largest overseas section at the three-day event, after Spain and Italy.

Mr Schafer stressed that the perception of quality was a key selling point for US produce overseas, particularly as 'younger, more demanding consumers' became more affluent on the mainland.

'I talked to several exhibitors on the floor who told me that two or three years ago they had zero sales in Shanghai, or China as a whole,' he said.

'But as consumers try their products, they are experiencing growth of 400 per cent, 500 per cent or 600 per cent per year.'