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China's "long, steep road" to safer food

DATE:2015-04-08       SOURCE:China Daily

Having safe, nutritious food on every plate in China is a momentous task and one that China’s government has made great strides in achieving. Yet for every gain there are setbacks, from unsafe use of pesticides to insufficient inspectors in food production facilities. The high profile food crises in the past years have gained headlines in China and around the world. When will the people of China be able to fully trust the food they eat?To ensure food safety for every citizen, China has a long, steep road ahead.

The enormous scale of the food safety industry – like the country it works to feed – shows there are no quick fixes or easy answers. China feeds around 20% of the world’s population with 9% of the world’s land, and 6% of its water.The food industry is made up of millions of businesses – and valued at approximately 12 trillion RMB ($1.93 trillionUSD) in 2014, it is an important sector in China’s powerhouse economy. Ensuring the safety of all food grown, produced and consumed in China is no small task.

Unsafe food poses major health threats, as it contains harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances. These cause more than 200 diseases ranging from diarrhea to cancer. Most of these health threats are preventable.

Aside from food hygiene (which can cause foodborne disease from bacteria and other infectious agents), some of the causes of unsafe food in China include chemical contamination by pollutants,and veterinary drug residue, such as from misuse and overuse of antibiotics in farming. The Government of China is taking steps to address these problems. But they cannot be solved overnight: addressing many of these issues will require fundamental changes all the way along the food chain.

Premier Li Keqiang told the State Council last year that food was essential, and safety should be a top priority. This was recognition that China needs to focus on the problems posed by unsafe food.The Government included food safety in the12th Five-Year Plan for Social and Economic Development, and it will likely continue to be a priority in the 13th Five-Year Plan.

Since 2001, a series of reforms have been conducted to strengthen food safety management in China. This work culminated with the adoption of a modern and comprehensive national Food Safety Law in 2009,and the establishment of the State Council Food Safety Commission in 2010.

Another crucial step was taken in March 2013 when the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA)was created. This modern-era regulator is the central body responsible for the safety of the nation’s food and drug supply. Its responsibilities include the supervision and administration on the safety of production, circulation and consumption processes of food and drugs as well as inspection and testing. Before the creation of the CFDA, responsibilities for food safety within the national government were scatteredamong a number of different government departments – often with gaps and overlaps.

China is on the right track. Progressive and immediate actions are helping to reduce foodborne diseases and the food-related incidents. But it is not enough. There are still many challenges to address.

To overcome these, first, WHO recommends further clarification of the roles and responsibilities of all agenciesinvolved in food control under the Food Safety Law. The 2009 Food Safety Law is currently undergoing review, and amendments are expected to be adopted this year. Clarification about the roles and responsibilities at different levels of government is needed, as well as how different agencies cooperate, including with the work of the State Council Food Safety Commission.

Second, WHO wants to see better implementation of the Food Safety Law.Putting in place the regulation is the first step. Backing that up with people who are properly trained to conduct its implementation is crucial. China needs better coordination, more human resources and facilities at the local and county level, along with propertraining of staff for supervision and inspections.

Third, transparent communication is needed to ensure public trust in the food industry and its regulators. Effective communication is needed to reinforce consumer confidence. Public anxiety is heightened by the lack of information. The goal of communication is to help consumers and the public in understanding the rationale behind a risk-based decision. Systematic collection and publication of data are essential to inform the scientists, regulators and the general public about the situation and trends.

China has shown its ability to tackle seemingly-insurmountable problems in the past. Now the scale of the problem is as large as the plate of food in front of you. We must continue to strengthen both regulation, and implementation, of rigorous, world-class food safety standards, so that every person in China can have confidence that the food on their plate is safe to eat.

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