Food safety authorities appear to be taking a more aggressive approach to combating the rising number of problems involving tainted food nationwide, as the issue is reportedly being factored into assessments of local officials' performance.
So far, at least Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Zhejiang have incorporated their local food safety situations into evaluations of officials' work, while also ordering strengthened and co-ordinated food safety supervision at city and county levels, Xinhua reported yesterday, citing an unidentified official with the Office of the Food Safety Commission under the State Council.
The revelation came weeks after the cabinet urged lower levels of government to take responsibility and be accountable in the crackdown on the illegal use of non-food materials and the abuse of food additives.
'The key officials [of administrations of county level or above] should personally oversee the crackdown, and the official in charge of the matter should take direct responsibility,' a notice by the State Council said last month.
In Beijing, the municipal government has pledged to specify the supervisory responsibilities of relevant departments, saying the administration and a mechanism of assessment will be drafted to evaluate the district or county government officials. And those who fail to meet the target will be removed from office, according to Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong, who spoke last month at a nationally televised conference on the blitz on illegal food additives.
Last week, the Organisation Department of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee and the Executive Office of the Food Safety Commission organised the first minister-level training on food safety management and briefed them about the 'severe situation'. A total of 92 officials, including provincial deputy governors in charge of food safety, attended the seminar, according to Xinhua.
Making food safety a key issue in the political careers of local officials is expected to bring the food safety crackdown to a new level.
Academics have long criticised the excessive number of players regulating food safety, as health authorities, food and drug officials and commerce administrations all have a hand in the process, with no agency taking the lead.
Despite repeated government pledges in recent weeks to crack down on the problem, China has been hit by a wave of stomach-churning food scandals that reignited fears of events three years ago when six children died and more than 300,000 children were made ill by what had become a widespread practice of adding an industrial additive, melamine, to milk to boost its protein reading.
And just last month, 286 villagers in Hunan had to seek treatment for food poisoning after eating pork believed to have been tainted with clenbuterol, an additive that makes meat leaner. Before that, a Shanghai company was found to be recycling expired buns, a staple food in the north, by dying them or lacing them with colour agents to mislead customers. And in March, the country's largest meat processor, Shuanghui, was found to be using pigs fed clenbuterol.
Aware that the food problems have caused them to lose face, while residents lose confidence, state officials are rushing to curtail the problem.
Last month, Premier Wen Jiabao lashed out at unscrupulous food producers, saying: 'These virulent food safety incidents have revealed a grave situation of dishonesty and moral degradation.'