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China Reviews Food Safety Draft Law

China's top legislature on Thursday began reviewing a draft law on food safety, which sets stricter food quality standards and demands greater government responsibility.

The draft, which was revised after the recent contaminated dairy products scandal, would ban all chemicals and materials other than authorized additives in food production.

Health authorities are responsible for assessing and approving food additives and setting their usage. "Only those proved to be safe and necessary in food production are allowed to be listed as food additives," the draft says.

Food producers must strictly stick to the food additives and their usage approved by authorities, on penalty of closure or revocation of production licenses in serious cases, according to the draft.

In the tainted dairy products scandal, melamine, often used in the manufacture of plastics, was added to substandard or diluted milk to make protein levels appear higher. At least three infants died and more than 50,000 were sickened after prolonged drinking the contaminated milk.

"Food additive monitoring is one of the key point of revising the draft law," an expert participating in the draft told Xinhua.

"According to the draft, even unharmful substances, as long as they are not proved food additives, are not allowed to be added into food," said the expert who declined to be named.

The draft also prohibits food safety supervision authorities from issuing inspection exemptions to food producers.

China began exempting companies producing globally-competitive products from quality inspection in 2000 to help them avoid repeated examinations and reduce their burden.

The practice encountered severe criticism when it was discovered many of the companies producing and selling melamine-tainted dairy products had national inspection exemption qualifications.

"In terms of food safety, all producers are equal, no matter whether they are big names or not," the law expert said. "Quality supervision agencies cannot give up their responsibility in food inspection."

The draft also asks health authorities to write and issue "scientific, safe and reliable" food safety standards, which are compulsory to all food producers, to ensure public health.

The standards would combine the current standards for edible agricultural products, food hygiene, food quality and other relative standards in the food industry, according to the draft.

Health authorities should refer to international standards and listen to opinions of food producers and consumers when writing the standards, the draft said.

In effort to improve government supervision, the draft requires health agencies to conduct inspections and assessments of problematic food products as soon as they receive complaints.

Consumers started to complain about the product quality problem of dairy giant Sanlu Group in March, but local health departments didn't pay close attention until September.

The draft law also requires a quick and transparent reporting system, saying enterprises, hospitals and quality supervision agencies should immediately report all food safety incidents to health authorities.

"No organizations, institutions or individuals should cover up, lie about or delay reporting food safety incidents. Destroying evidence is strictly forbidden," the draft says.

China's current food safety system involves at least five departments, including health, agriculture, quality supervision, industry and commerce administration, and food and drug supervision.

The draft asks the departments, especially those at the grassroots level, to improve communication, cooperate closely with each other and faithfully fulfil their legal responsibilities.

NPC Law Committee Vice Chairman Liu Xirong said the committee revised the draft law in eight aspects after the tainted dairy products scandal.

"We hope a new law could help better prevent and handle such food safety incidents in future."

The draft was tabled to lawmakers for the third reading at a bimonthly session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC).

It underwent its first reading in December. In April, it was opened to public scrutiny and more than 11,000 submissions were made to the lawmaking body.

(Xinhua News Agency October 24, 2008)

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