China continues to clean house

Mark A. DeSorbo

BEIJING—With crackdowns on substandard drugs and shoddy pharmaceutical manufacturing well underway, China has launched efforts to clean up its food supply in the wake of mass food poisonings by establishing a monitoring network.

The measure is the most recent step China has taken toward securing its seat in the World Trade Organization. [See “China copes with drug woes amid business development,” CleanRooms, March 2001.]

“They are going to have to make a concerted effort to adopt ISO or U.S. standards to be competitive in the World Market,” says public safety consultant Robert W. Powitz, principal of R.W. Powitz & Associates, P.C. (Old Saybrook, CT). “It's going to have to be a Herculean effort on their part with help from and a lot of foreign expertise.”

At a forum on food safety held here in late November, Zhoa Tonggang, a Ministry of Health official said the network has already unveiled the use of pesticides, growth-enhancing hormones and the lack of sanitization in food storage and production, all of which have led to numerous food-borne illness outbreaks throughout China.

At least 40 farmers suffered food poisoning in Jintan of East China's Jiangsu Province, while 484 people ate poisonous pork in Heyuan of South China's Guangdong Province. No deaths related to the cases have been reported.

Some farmers, tempted by profits, use banned pesticides, chemicals and hormones to increase production and earn higher incomes, Zhoa says.

The increasing demand for food has bolstered the number of food producing entities as well, contributing to the problem. According to ministry statistics, that number has increased from 1.2 million to 5 million throughout the country from 1995 to 2000.

In response to greater demand, many small-scale food producers using simple facilities and untrained staff have emerged, says Zhao. Hygenic facilities for food storage and production, he adds, are rarely used, leading to countless food-borne illnesses like the one that hit Jintan.

Health Minister Zhang Wenkang urged for improvements in the inspection system and pushed for frequent checks on every part of the food production process, including planting, breeding, production, processing, storage, transportation and sale.

At the time of this report, the Chinese government reported that more than 18,000 fake or poor-quality food producing workshops had already been destroyed; 17,316 tons of fake or poor-quality food and 29,300 unhealthy pigs had been seized and more than 150 people were arrested in the crackdowns.

“We should educate food producers to strictly follow the Law on Food Hygiene and enhance their consciousness of professional ethics,” Zhang told China's Xingua News Agency.

Meanwhile, Zhang told the China Daily that a supervisory role of consumers is also being encouraged. Measures will be adopted to expand consumers' access to food safety administration, he added.

Lisa Lee, an expert with the World Health Organization also told the China Daily that food safety is a “shared responsibility” between the government, supervisory bodies and the consumers.

Powitz agrees, adding that China will need to adopt regulatory validation, bring manufacturing facilities up to date and meticulously train personnel.

While it has taken many years for the United States to develop agencies that monitor food from harvest to the table, Powitz says it will probably take China considerably longer given its current situation.

“What China is trying to do is make food safe from the farm to production to the table,” Powitz says. “That's taken us many years, but we're still kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, and by that I mean I'm sure there's a diner or bar in your neighborhood that uses 1940s technology to make your hamburger.”


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