Wednesday, June 6, 2007

China to Revise Food and Drug Safety Rules

The NYT reports:

Responding to growing international concerns about tainted food and counterfeit drugs, China said late Tuesday that it was overhauling its food and drug safety regulations and would introduce nationwide inspections.

The announcement, from the State Council, the nation’s highest administrative body, is the strongest signal yet that Beijing is moving to crack down on the sale of dangerous food and medicine and also trying to calm fears that some of its exports pose health problems.

The move follows a series of embarrassing episodes this year involving China’s export of contaminated pet food ingredients and toothpaste. The shipments of tainted pet food ingredients set off one of the largest pet food recalls in United States history.

Last month, an article in The New York Times revealed that at least 100 people had died in Panama after taking medicine containing a toxic chemical called diethylene glycol that had been produced in China and exported as the harmless syrup glycerine.

And in recent weeks, several countries, including the United States, Panama and Nicaragua, recalled or issued warnings about toothpaste made in China because it contained diethylene glycol.

While Beijing has strongly defended the quality and safety of its food and drug exports, and even denied that toothpaste it exported was unsafe, government regulators at the same time have stepped up safety inspections and shut down companies accused of producing unsafe food or counterfeit drugs.

But with pressure growing from regulators in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world, and international food companies expressing concern about the risks of importing Chinese-made food and feed ingredients, Beijing is pushing for a more forceful response to the crisis.

In its announcement on Tuesday, which was posted on a government Web site, China said that the state council had approved a new food and drug safety guarantee system on April 17 and that an outline of the new program was being distributed to government agencies nationwide.

The government said in its announcement that it planned by 2010 to place new controls on food and drug imports and exports, to step up random testing on medicines and have inspection information on 90 percent of all food products.

It said it also planned safety checks on a large majority of food makers and said that regulators would crack down on the sale of counterfeit drugs and medical devices.

The government did not indicate whether it would provide more funds for the efforts or which agencies would carry out the bulk of the functions.

But in announcing the new measures, the government hinted at its weaknesses in enforcement, saying that after five years one goal was that “100 percent of the significant food safety accidents are investigated and dealt with” and that “80 percent of the food that needs to be recalled is recalled.”

A few weeks ago, the government had announced that it was planning to set up a food recall system.

On Tuesday, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, which oversees food and drug exports, also posted statements on its Web site about the issue.

“Recently, our country has had a series of export food problems, and that has triggered a lot of overseas attention about China’s food safety,” said Wei Chuanzhong, deputy director of the agency. “This has put us on high alert, and led us to seriously look into the reasons for the problem.”

Food and drug safety experts have complained for years about an incredibly flawed system that has led to food scares or mass poisonings tied to counterfeit or substandard medicines on the market.

Much of the blame has centered on weak enforcement of the nation’s food and drug regulations, as well as corruption, bribery and a business culture where counterfeiting thrives.

China’s food and drug administration, which is supposed to safeguard the nation’s health, has also been implicated.

Last week, a Chinese court handed down a death sentence against Zheng Xiaoyu, the head of the Food and Drug Administration in China from 1998 to 2005, after he pleaded guilty to bribery and corruption. The government also said that he took bribes to approve drug production licenses and that it was reviewing production licenses the agency had issued.

Some experts say the new food and drug safety program suggests that the nation’s top leaders are taking up the call for reforms and new enforcement measures.

“There’s been concern for a while about food safety in this country, and now that there are growing concerns about China’s international image, the state council has decided to act,” said Russell Leigh Moses, an analyst of Chinese politics who is based in Beijing. “This may be a sign that everyone in the government ought to get in line.”

But the challenges facing China are enormous because its regulatory system is weak and enforcement is particularly difficult, partly because the economy is growing so fast and also because local officials accept bribes and sometimes allow small companies to flout regulations.

Also, regulators here say many exporters of food and medicines are mislabeling goods and shipping them illegally.

Two weeks ago, food and drug safety issues were even on the table in Washington during the strategic economic dialogue hosted by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

“These are issues China has to deal with over time,” says Rio D. Praaning, secretary general of the Public Advice International Foundation in Belgium, an advisory group that is working on food and drug safety issues around the world. “But we can’t wait. We have interim developments. We have patience, but frankly patience is out the window when people start dying.”