07/13/2010, 00.00
CHINA
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Food safety hard to guarantee in China

Health Ministry official reaches this unpalatable conclusion. Experts say consumer protection can only be achieved if protection agencies are independent from political institutions.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – “With such a huge territory and population in China, it's hard to avoid all food safety threats and to put all unscrupulous businessmen under scrutiny,” said Su Zhi, a senior official with China’s Health Ministry, after the authorities seized 76 tonnes of baby formula tainted with melamine. Speaking at a food safety forum, he also called for greater vigilance against unsafe food practices.

The problem was brought out into the open in September 2008 when the authorities revealed that melamine had been added to baby formula. This chemical substance is used in making plastic and is highly toxic for humans in whom it can cause kidney problems. Altogether, six children died and more than 300,000 got sick from consuming the tainted powder milk.

Eventually, 22 producers were involved, including China’s largest and best known dairy company. Chinese dairy products were eventually banned in many countries.

About 21 people were arrested and convicted; two were sentenced to death and executed.

Su did not say whether the new tainted milk seized in Gansu and Qinghai was made before the scandal broke out in 2008, and ostensibly destined for destruction, or after. What is clear though is that food safety problems involving Chinese companies are directly related to the lack of a proper control system.

Later it came to light that in 2008 the authorities were already aware of melamine-tainted baby formula months before the information was actually made public but covered up everything so as not to affect the Beijing Olympic Games.

China’s official media are now praising the government’s new approach of early warning. However, the amount of information made available to the public remains limited.

Experts note that local authorities are closely connected to business interests, and that consumer protection requires control agencies and a legal system that are independent of the Communist party and local government.

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