The mainland's frightening list of food scandals that have killed and sickened untold numbers are the consequence of authorities' failure to take a responsible stand on safety and regulation. They have pledged reforms numerous times, but too often it has been a case of insufficient effort or empty words. The State Council's decision to create a single agency to deal with food and drug regulation finally moves in the right direction. But only if there is transparency and proper enforcement of rules will the nation's health and well-being be assured.
There are some doubts that this ideal can be attained. The government's record of ensuring safe food, clean water and a healthy environment has been poor. Greed and corruption have shattered confidence in the food industry and damaged China's image and reputation. Scandals involving the chemical melamine added to baby milk formula to give false nutrition readings and the recycling of discarded cooking oil stand out, but they are just two of countless. Barely a week passes without another scare.
Public outrage over the melamine scandal, which left six children dead and 300,000 others ill, prompted the passing of a stronger food safety law in 2009. It toughened penalties for offenders and was supposed to tighten standards and improve supervision. But like the execution in 2007 of the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration for taking bribes to certify drugs and the death penalties and jail terms to those involved in tainting baby formula, confidence has not been restored. A survey last spring in 16 major cities showed that food safety remained by far the biggest concern, topping the list for 81.8 per cent of respondents.
The new agency, the General Administration of Food and Drugs, aims to untangle the red tape that prevents effective oversight and regulation. It would now take over the regulatory power from the ministry of agriculture and several other agencies to supervise the quality and safety of food and drugs. Previously, a lack of communication, co-ordination and co-operation were blamed for loopholes and inefficiencies.
A unified, ministerial-level agency moves in the right direction. To be effective, though, it has to set high standards and be accountable. With transparency and enforcement of laws and regulations as its guiding principles, the nation and its people have the best chance of a healthy future.